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Four Saints defensive players "who the league said were ringleaders of the bounties in their heyday during the 2009 playoffs" yesterday were given suspensions as part of the investigation into the team's bounty program, according to a front-page piece by James Varney of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE. Saints LB Jonathan Vilma “was suspended for a year without pay,” while DE Will Smith “received a four-game suspension without pay.” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell “also hit two former Saints players” -- Packers DT Anthony Hargrove got an eight-game suspension, while Browns LB Scott Fujita recieved a three-game ban. The moves “bring to a close the punishment ... meted out in response" to the NFL's investigation. Vilma yesterday issued a statement in which he "broke his long silence on the bounty scandal.” He lashed out at Goodell's action, "insisting he never encouraged or offered financial rewards for deliberately injurious play.” Vilma also “vowed to pursue his options.” The NFLPA in a statement referred to a comment Vilma made "about the lack of hard evidence made public thus far.” Varney cites sources as saying that Vilma and the other players “did not meet with Goodell in New York, despite the league's invitation to do so, because without any hard evidence, the players could find themselves in a worse position.” The four players have three days to appeal the suspensions, though it "would go right back to Goodell.” That was “the path followed” by coach Sean Payton who received a full year suspension, GM Mickey Loomis who was given an eight game ban, and assistant coach Joe Vitt, who was suspended for six games (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 5/3). NFLPA Exec Dir DeMaurice Smith in the statement said, “We will vigorously protect and pursue all options on their behalf.” USA TODAY’s Nate Davis notes the CBA “essentially makes Goodell judge and jury for off-field conduct, which is where this falls.” The players “can’t appeal to anyone but the commissioner and might have difficulty getting the case into the judicial system.” NFL Network's Heath Evans, who played for the Saints from '09-10, said, “It’s an uphill battle to suspend a player for eight games without hard evidence. They will probably fight this to the Supreme Court” (USA TODAY, 5/3).
LONG ROAD AHEAD: ESPN's Adam Schefter cited a source as saying that “all four players suspensions will be appealed.” The source said, “Get ready for a massive multiple legal battle over this on several fronts” (ESPN.com, 5/2). YAHOO SPORTS’ Jason Cole wrote, “As quickly as Goodell might want to resolve this, the wheels of justice tend to be slow.” An attorney said that the four player suspensions “aren’t months away from being decided." The attorney: "Try years. ... This is going to be complex on multiple levels.” The attorney added, “They’ll fight this to the death, I have no doubt. You don't fight with Roger out in public and expect that he's going to back down. You fight with him in private and make it so that he can look like he has everything under control" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/2). Denver-based Authentic Athletix player agent Peter Schaeffer said, “It's another example of the commissioner's overbearing power in the league to suspend players for actions of coaches. If they were any of my players, we would fight this to the bitter end" (DENVER POST, 5/3).
THE MEMO: NFL.com’s Albert Breer noted chief execs and presidents for all 32 NFL teams received a memo from the league “that reiterated the major points of the league’s press release” announcing the punishments. The memo “also provided additional detail into the investigation itself and the problems with the NFL Players Association on this matter.” The letter specifically referenced the "audio secretly taped and provided to Yahoo! Sports by filmmaker Sean Pamphilon of then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' speech.” The statement read in part, “While the NFLPA has publicly stated that it conducted its own investigation into this matter, the union has shared no information with us from that investigation. As one example, we learned that the union may have had the tape recording of a speech given before the divisional playoff game between the Saints and the San Francisco 49ers this past January. Although a version of this tape recording has been widely publicized, the union has never shared it with us." A union source said that the NFLPA “was aware of the Williams audio, but was not in possession of it.” The source “emphasized that the union investigation has turned up no evidence of players directing any bounty or pay-to-injure program.” Goodell in the memo said, "We also took the step of engaging Mary Jo White, the former United States Attorney for New York, at an early stage of the investigation in order to ensure both the fairness of the process and the reliability of the information on which our decisions were made in the Saints matter" (NFL.com, 5/2).
Goodell's bounty ruling sends message as the
NFL faces numerous lawsuits from former players
NOT AS BAD AS IT COULD HAVE BEEN: In New Orleans, John DeShazier in a front-page piece writes a “persuasive argument can be made that the New Orleans Saints got off light.” When the league announced that 22 to 27 Saints players participated in the program -- and Goodell said players "'willingly and enthusiastically embraced’ a concept in which financial rewards were pledged in exchange for injuring opposing players -- the thought was that the suspensions would be so numerous, Goodell would have to stagger them so the Saints could have enough players to field a defense that looked like it belonged on an NFL field” (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 5/3). ESPN.com’s Fox wrote Goodell “dropped the hammer on the most important men atop the Saints organization.” Therefore he “had to do the same thing to the leadership of the Saints’ defense.” The only thing “particularly surprising about the long-awaited suspensions is that Goodell did not issue more.” Goodell “could have crippled the Saints.” But instead he “acted with at least a little restraint” (ESPN.com, 5/2). YAHOO SPORTS’ Dan Wetzel wrote the Saints “made out OK” yesterday. The NFL “acted appropriately” as the league “put a premium on the people who set up the bounty system, promoted it and funded it -- not the ones who merely participated” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/2). ESPN's Michael Smith said, "The Saints as an organization, and for that matter their fans, ought to be counting their blessings right now.” Two of the four players suspended “aren’t even on the team” anymore ("Numbers Never Lie," ESPN2, 5/2). ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser: “I thought there were going to be a lot more players suspended than this” ("PTI," ESPN, 5/2).
MAKING AN EXAMPLE OF VILMA: CBSSPORTS.com’s Ray Ratto wrote what Goodell did yesterday with the punishments “was try to equate what the players did with what those in the real position of authority did, and that is simply daft.” Vilma “got the same suspension” as Payton and Hargrove “got the same punishment as Mickey Loomis,” while Fujita and Smith “combined got one game more" than Vitt. Ratto: “We’re not sure if a year is right for Vilma, but we are sure that his responsibility is not the same as Payton's.” But in football, “more than any other sport, the hierarchy is unshakable.” The players “cannot be equally responsible to the coaches for the same crime” (CBSSPORTS.com, 5/2). ESPN’s Jemele Hill said of the suspensions, “I don’t like the message that this sends.” Vilma's year-long ban “says you consider (him) just as culpable as Sean Payton." Hill called that "ridiculous” because Payton is “in charge” ("Numbers Never Lie," ESPN2, 5/2). ESPN.com’s Mark Kreidler wrote Vilma is “a tool being manipulated by a commissioner trying to make much larger points.” The season-long suspension of Vilma “was so over the top that it had to be for effect, and indeed it was.” Kreidler: “The severity of Vilma's punishment, in fact, leaves me with the strong impression that Goodell knows full well bounty systems exist in locker rooms around the NFL, however loosely structured and clumsily implemented they may be.” Goodell “wants them stopped, even though almost any football cynic could tell you that'll never happen” (ESPN.com, 5/2). ESPN’s Matt Hasselbeck said Goodell “basically just drew a line in the sand of where he thought, ‘Well, this amount of involvement is going to warrant a suspension and anything less than that is just going to go away.’” Hasselbeck: “It does rub me the wrong way that some of this discipline appears to be as much a challenge to the NFLPA as it is about the principle of deciding to suspend some of these players for their actions” (“NFL Live,” ESPN, 5/2).
ROCK AND A HARD PLACE: In L.A., Sam Farmer writes the NFLPA “is in a tricky position.” The union “immediately responded to the sanctions, saying it has not received any detailed or specific information on the involvement of the four players punished.” However, the union "doesn't just represent the suspended players but all NFL players, including those targeted.” If the NFLPA “goes out of its way to protect Saints who were targeting other players, the union will look less like an advocate for all players and more like a group that blindly opposes anything that has to do with management” (L.A. TIMES, 5/3). ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert wrote, “Why isn't the union jumping to the defense of the targeted players?” The story has thus far “centered around the aggressors.” Seifert: “What about the victims?” (ESPN.com, 5/2). USA TODAY’s Jarrett Bell writes it is a “shame” that Smith and the union are “apparently more energized to appeal the suspensions … than to fight for the protection of the Michael Crabtrees, Frank Gores and Cam Newtons said to have been targeted by bounties” (USA TODAY, 5/3). USA TODAY’s Christine Brennan writes NFL Exec VP/Labor & General Counsel Jeff Pash “has expressed frustration that the NFLPA is more concerned about protecting the New Orleans Four than the players they targeted.” Brennan: “Good for the NFL for calling the union on that one.” It is “one thing for a union to make sure players have the right to appeal if they want to” But it is “quite another to actively fight for the exoneration of a few bad apples when they affect the health and well-being of so many others” (USA TODAY, 5/3). SB Nation's Bomani Jones said, “What everybody’s saying is that the union needs to sell individual players out, and all of us are too smart to think that such a thing is ever going to happen." Jones: "That’s one of the difficulties for the union in this case, the idea that the union needs to sell its guys out and recommend punishment” (“Around The Horn,” ESPN, 5/2).
The evidence is clear that the four Saints players suspended as part of the bounty probe actively participated in that program, said former U.S. prosecutor for the southern district of New York Mary Jo White, who was hired by the NFL in December to review the investigation. Speaking to reporters this morning, White all but scoffed at NFLPA contentions that the union had not seen enough evidence. “I have reviewed all of the evidence in this case and the factual basis for the sanctions is quite strong,” she said, adding the NFLPA has met with NFL security and seen the commissioner’s reports. The NFLPA has expressed concern that the unnamed sources who provided the information, whom she described as having first-hand knowledge, were not disclosed to the union, but White said whistleblowers' identities should never be revealed. She called it a “red herring issue." Packers DT Anthony Hargrove, who was suspended for the first eight games of the '12 season, submitted a signed declaration attesting to the existence of the bounty program, she said. Hargrove in '10 lied about the program, though he was instructed to do so, White said. She would not say who told him to lie. The union has objected to the sanctions, and Saints LB Jonathan Vilma, who was suspended for a year, and Saints DE Will Smith have vehemently denied the charges. White said Vilma and the others had a chance to present their defense with counsel, but declined the opportunity.
LEAGUE CLAIMS SUIT WILL BE UNSUCCESSFUL: The NFL does not think the union will be successful if it chooses to sue the league in federal court. NFL Senior VP/Law & Labor Policy Adolpho Birch, who has been involved in the investigation, said the CBA is clear in designating disciplinary powers to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell. “It is pretty clear that would not be an appropriate action,” he said of a potential lawsuit. The four players are expected to appeal the suspensions shortly, though Goodell, who handed down the suspensions, hears their appeals under terms of the CBA because the conduct is classified as off-field conduct. Had the bounties been classified as on-field conduct, an appeal board would have heard the challenges. White made it clear the players were at fault even if their coaches, three of whom have been suspended, ordered the pay-to-injure bounties. “Each player had the responsibility to say no,” she said. White has advised the league in the past on player disciplinary issue. However, she described her role in this process as independent.
Guggenheim Baseball Management, formally introduced yesterday as new owner of the Dodgers, announced it is reducing general parking at Dodger Stadium from $15 to $10, the first operational policy change for the arriving group. Team President & CEO Stan Kasten announced the creation of an e-mail address for fan suggestions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Kasten also promised more opportunities for fans to watch batting practice, obtain autographs and see players greeting fans at stadium gates. Much of the questioning from the assembled press at Dodger Stadium yesterday centered on former Owner Frank McCourt and his stake in the stadium parking lot property. McCourt retains an economic interest in profits from potential development on the land, should it occur, but the Guggenheim partners repeatedly insisted that McCourt will receive no other money from any facet of the club, trying at many instances but failing to not mention him by name. Guggenheim partner Magic Johnson said, "The rumors -- we're quashing them now. Frank McCourt is not involved in any shape or fashion in the day-to-day operations of the club. I'm not talking about Frank McCourt anymore. We're moving this franchise forward. He is not part of the Dodgers any more. We should be clapping for that" (Eric Fisher, SportsBusiness Journal). In L.A., Gary Klein notes Johnson attempted to make it clear yesterday that he is "more than a local figurehead for Guggenheim." He said that his responsibilities "would include sponsorships, marketing and other business-related areas as well as being an 'ambassador' for the team." He reiterated that he would "be a daily presence at Dodger Stadium, reporting to his new office Monday." Johnson previously held an ownership stake in the Lakers, but said that he "no longer has any business interest in the team." He added that he "would fulfill his ESPN contract as an NBA analyst through the playoffs but intimated that the broadcasting part of his multifaceted career would be put on hold as he became entrenched in the Dodgers" (L.A. TIMES, 5/3).
THE BASEBALL GUY: In L.A., Kevin Baxter writes it was "clear that while Guggenheim Chair Mark Walter is the ownership group's money man and former basketball star Magic Johnson its public persona, Kasten is its baseball guy." Walter said, "It would be incredibly stupid for me to tell him how to run a baseball team." Kasten added, "The blame stops at my desk. It doesn't go farther than me." Baxter notes that means everything from Dodger Stadium parking "to concessions, where Kasten is negotiating for a wider variety and lower prices." Kasten's "chief focus will be on improving the team's performance on the field." He "wouldn't say what he thought that would cost." But he did say that he "expects the payroll to 'be north' of where it is now." Kasten said that he planned to meet with GM Ned Colletti, "perhaps as early" as today (L.A. TIMES, 5/3). ESPN.com's Buster Olney noted the Dodgers "almost certainly will grow their payroll going into next season." The team's payroll is at $90M in '12, "slashed by about 25 percent in recent years, and can easily increase into the range for the superpower franchises" (ESPN.com, 5/2).
CHANGE IS GONNA COME: In L.A., Roger Vincent notes new Dodgers co-Owner Peter Guber yesterday "deflected questions about how he might like to see the parking lots around Dodger Stadium developed." The other owners acknowledged that real estate development in Chavez Ravine "might occur in the future, but, like them, Guber insisted that the first priority is to renovate and upgrade the Dodgers' aging stadium." Kasten "vowed to start with improvements to stadium operating systems including water and power." Guber "spitballed such ideas as 'fast-track parking' and enhanced service for cellphones" (L.A. TIMES, 5/3). Meanwhile, YAHOO SPORTS' Tim Brown wrote there is "no way of knowing what kind of franchise owner Mark Walter will be," but the fact that he is "not Frank McCourt will mollify most people for long enough." When it "comes to its baseball owner, Los Angeles has had it with nice suits." The place has been "lousy with empty ones for too long. L.A. wants someone it can trust." After Fox and McCourt, L.A. "wants some dignity." Brown: "Dodgers fans can love Magic Johnson all they want, but it's the guy next to him, the other guy in the suit, who really matters" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/2). In L.A., Bill Plaschke writes under the header, "Dodgers Owners Are Off To A Lively Start." Plaschke: "The new owners "lighted up the place Wednesday with raucous promise, defiant hope and only one certainty. Hang on to your blue, because it's going to be a wild ride" (L.A. TIMES, 5/3). MLB Network's Chris Rose said, “They did something very smart. In the L.A. Times, the new ownership group took this out a full page ad basically saying, ‘We are the new ownership group. This is the way we are doing things and it's all about you, the fans’" ("Intentional Talk," MLB Network, 5/2).
STOP THIS TRAIN: Dodgers announcer Vin Scully said at yesterday's press conference, "I’m fed up. I’m fed up to here. I go back to the so-called changing of the guards. When Branch Rickey handed the franchise to Walter O’Malley. And I was there when Peter O’Malley handed the franchise to Fox. And I was there when Fox handed it to Bob Daly and Fox. And I was there when Fox then handed it to Frank McCourt. And it has now been handed to the Guggenheim Baseball Management group. And I am telling each and every one of you right now, this is the last new ownership press conference I will ever attend." In L.A., Steve Dilbeck asked, "Is that just being realistic figuring if this ever does happen again, by then the 84-year-old Scully will have called it a career? A true vote of confidence in this new group? That he really is tired of the ownership carousel? That he was just being facetious? Or worse, a foreshadowing that he’ll retire after this season?" (LATIMES.com, 5/2).
Marc Bergevin "was introduced as the Canadiens' 17th GM" at a news conference yesterday afternoon, according to Pat Hickey of the Montreal GAZETTE. Bergevin replaces Pierre Gauthier, who was "relieved of his duties on March 29 after a two-year run that ended with the Canadiens finishing dead-last in the Eastern Conference" this season. Canadiens President & CEO Geoff Molson said that the decision to hire Bergevin "was made after a month-long search guided" by former GM Serge Savard. Molson said, "We had a long list of candidates and we were able to whittle the list down to 10 pretty easily." He added that there were "three candidates on the final short list and, while he didn't name them, the runners-up" were Lightning Assistant GM Julien BriseBois and NBC's Pierre McGuire. Molson said, "The decision wasn't easy, but we feel we selected an individual with the potential to lead our organization in the future. We were looking for a candidate with very strong leadership capabilities, great communication skills at all levels and someone with a clear determination and commitment to winning. We believe we found the right person." Bergevin said that he "hoped to have fun in the new job and make the people of Montreal proud." When asked how long it would take to turn the team around, Bergevin said, "I don't have a time frame, but my vision of this team is that it has a good nucleus" (Montreal GAZETTE, 5/3). Molson said yesterday that Bergevin "brought a lot to the table." Molson added, "Today marks the first step towards bringing back a winning culture to our organization" (TORONTO STAR, 5/3).
AN EYE FOR TALENT: NHL.com's Arpon Basu wrote Bergevin left his position as Blackhawks Assistant GM "to take what is arguably one of the most prestigious front office positions in all of sports." Bergevin is "held in high regard as a talent evaluator," and he will be "under some pressure to perform in Montreal, with a fan base upset about the difficulties of this past season and eager for a return to the gloried history of the franchise" (NHL.com, 5/2). In Chicago, Chris Kuc notes Bergevin impressed Molson "enough during a lengthy interview process to take a chance on a candidate with no previous experience as a GM, and who served only one year as an assistant." Bergevin's "extensive experience in other roles, and the connections he made during a career in hockey, made him a viable option." He is considered one of the NHL's "all-time pranksters and the French and English speaker has endeared himself to many around the sport" (CHICAGO TRIBUNE, 5/2). Also in Chicago, Adam Jahns writes it is a "somewhat expected -- but still very substantial -- loss for the Hawks." It is their "third highly respected talent evaluator to leave to revamp another team." In Bergevin, the Canadiens "get someone who is easygoing and approachable." Blackhawks players "related to and liked him, which helped the organization in many ways" (CHICAGO SUN-TIMES, 5/3). In Montreal, Dave Stubbs writes Bergevin seems "up for the challenge, and having been raised in this city, he understands the passion and the expectations -- outrageous as they can be -- of Canadiens fans" (Montreal GAZETTE, 5/3).
A MEDIA DARLING: The GLOBE & MAIL's Roy MacGregor notes Bergevin has "been a media delight since his playing days." The "smiling, winking man who wears his heart on his sleeve is replacing a man who many believe kept his in a safety deposit box." The style change is "instantly welcome" (GLOBE & MAIL, 5/3).YAHOO SPORTS' Nicholas Cotsonika wrote Bergevin "won his introductory news conference" yesterday. Mostly in French, a little in English, the new GM "cracked one-liners and made jokes as he outlined his vision." Cotsonika wrote, "He's funny. He's outgoing," but winning news conferences "means little without winning games." However, style "might mean more in Montreal than any other market, thanks to its unique blend of history, pressure and politics, and style can have a practical impact on your chances of success" (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 5/2). The GLOBE & MAIL's Sean Gordon writes Bergevin’s "irreverence and candour constitute the starkest possible contrast with the taciturn Pierre Gauthier." And launching a "culture shift was the point" (GLOBE & MAIL, 5/3). The GLOBE & MAIL's James Mirtle wrote Bergevin "may just be the complete opposite" of Gauthier, as his "reputation for years has been as the funniest man in hockey" (GLOBEANDMAIL.com, 5/2). ESPN.com's Scott Burnside noted being the GM of the Canadiens is "different than almost every other posting in sport." There are contracts, drafting models and free agents "to consider, but the story of the Canadiens, especially as they exist now, is bigger, more complex." In that regard, Bergevin "seems well-suited for what will certainly be a difficult task" (ESPN.com, 5/2). In Montreal, Mike Boone writes under the header, "A Good First Impression Of New GM." After a "slightly nervous start, Bergevin charmed a jam-packed room at the Brossard training complex." Boone notes Bergevin's "good humour was infectious" (Montreal GAZETTE, 5/3).
A CHALLENGE AHEAD: SI.com's Michael Farber noted with the "looming possibility of the NHL's return to Quebec City, the Canadiens had become vulnerable in the nebulous area of hearts and minds in the province." Bergevin can "repair some of the superficial damage, but this franchise needs something more than cosmetic surgery" (SI.com, 5/2). In Toronto, Steve Buffery notes the Quebec media "seems largely thrilled over the hiring" of Bergevin. The media's enthusiasm is "interesting, because if the Canadiens’ management had hired any other guy with such limited front office experience to run the storied franchise, and he didn’t speak French, it would have been ripped from now until next Easter." Buffery: "But because he speaks French, it's a fantastic hiring. Whatever. Bergevin’s first order of business was to demote interim head coach Randy Cunneyworth, a terrible person given the fact that he speaks English only" (TORONTO SUN, 5/3).
The Bobcats are conducting a promotion where the "price for an upper-deck seat will equal the draft pick the team wins" in the NBA Draft Lottery later this month, according to Andrew Dunn of the CHARLOTTE OBSERVER. The team finished the season with a 7-59 record and has a 25% chance of landing the first overall selection. Should the Bobcats “get the top pick, the season ticket would be $1 per game, or $43 for the season.” There are about 500 seats eligible "for the ‘Pay the Pick’ promotion, which runs through the draft lottery on May 30.” Each person can “buy up to four seats, though ticketholders will not have the same benefits that regular season ticket purchasers receive.” Those fans will not be able to trade in their tickets and "won't get an invite to the off-the-court events.” The T'Wolves “ran an identical promotion for several years, beginning with the 2008-09 season” (CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, 5/3).
Canada's Competition Bureau will not challenge BCE Inc. and Rogers Communications Inc.’s “deal for a majority stake in Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., but has also sent a strong warning that it is keeping an eye on the sector,” according to Perkins & Nelson of the GLOBE & MAIL. The two companies struck a $1.3B agreement in December for a 75% stake in MLSE, owner of the Maple Leafs, Raptors and MLS Toronto FC, with “the aim of locking up the television rights for hockey, basketball and soccer for their sports channels.” While the Competition Bureau said that it “has no plans to interfere with the deal at this point, it signalled that it is looking into concerns about the amount of concentration and ‘vertical integration’ in the sector.” The organization "can challenge the deal for one year after it closes” (GLOBE & MAIL, 5/3). In Toronto, Yew & Campbell report the deal "is one step closer to becoming official" and will give Rogers and BCE "control over a massive real estate portfolio that includes the Air Canada Centre.” Rogers, which already owns the Blue Jays, and MLSE had “already moved forward with a cross promotional campaign, plastering the Air Canada Centre with billboards advertising Blue Jays gear for sale at Real Sports, MLSE’s flagship apparel store.” But for BCE and Rogers, “more than property and sports teams, the deal is about the rise of laptops, smartphones, and tablets -- and the lucrative business of providing content for those high-tech devices” (TORONTO STAR, 5/3).