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Volume 20 No. 42
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Bounty scandal exposes player-coach rift

As the NFL and NFL Players Association battle over the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, a third front is emerging in one of the league’s biggest offseason stories: a split between coaches and players.

While the suspended coaches quickly acquiesced to the NFL’s punishment, the NFLPA not only is fighting the league, but it also has turned its finger at the coaches. The union sponsored the declaration of former Saints player Anthony Hargrove saying the coaches instructed Hargrove to deny the existence of the bounty program, a contention quickly rebutted by Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt, who is among the suspended coaches.

Saints interim coach Joe Vitt says he didn’t tell Anthony Hargrove to lie about the bounty program.
Photo by: AP IMAGES
“After having capitulated and folded in collective bargaining with the entity it was charged to battle with, the players association chose to pick a battle with coaches to create the false impression of standing up for players,” said David Cornwell, executive director of the NFL Coaches Association, which the NFLPA is suing in a matter separate from the Saints investigation.

The NFLPA did not respond for comment.

The coach-player rift emerges as the four Saints players suspended by the league for allegedly participating in a bounty program between 2009 and 2011 are fighting their punishments through appeals from the union and, in linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s case, also through his lawyer, Peter Ginsberg. Ginsberg insists Vilma, who was suspended for one season by the NFL, had nothing to do with an alleged bounty program that paid teammates for knocking opponents out of games.

A source near to Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator indefinitely suspended for his role in the matter, disagreed and described Vilma as instrumental in the program. However, this source disagreed with the league’s contention that it was a bounty program and instead described the payment system as more of a “game” to motivate players. Players only were eligible to receive payments if the play was clean and if the team won, this source said. Also, this source said the notorious “cart-off” payments only existed in 2011. The players suggested these payments after seeing them portrayed in a movie, this source said.

And please press 2 to protest his suspension

New Orleans Saints suspended head coach Sean Payton’s ban from any contact with the NFL, and especially his team, for his role in the Bountygate scandal apparently does not cover his recorded voice.

Callers to the Saints ticket office are greeted by the embattled coach, who remains popular in New Orleans.

“This is coach Sean Payton. Thanks for calling the ticket office of your New Orleans Saints,” he says on the message. “Let’s huddle up. Here’s the play. To speak to the next available Saints representative, please press 1 now.”

His recording directs callers to other options, and then he concludes by saying, “This call may be monitored and recorded for training purposes. Who knows, it may even be placed under further review by the officials. Thanks for calling the New Orleans Saints.”

A league spokesman said the recording has existed for several years and that the NFL has no problem with it.

The NFL banned Payton for the 2012 season for allegedly failing to shut down the so-called bounty program that the Saints defense is said to have used between 2009 and 2011. The program allegedly paid players for tackles that injured opponents.

— Daniel Kaplan
The NFL has not publicly offered evidence that any opposing players were injured or carted off because of these alleged payments.

There are believed to be, sources said, slides detailing payments for specific types of plays, though whether this money was actually paid is unclear. The source close to Williams said very little of the money actually got paid out — either because the players would have their share wiped away because of penalties incurred during the game, or because they simply did not take the cash so the pool would be bigger the next week.

Cornwell agrees with the NFLPA that the league should show more evidence, but is upset over what he characterizes as the NFLPA interfering with his organization to the extent that he says it is unable to pursue its goals.

The NFLPA is suing the NFLCA, seeking to prevent the coaches group from using its bank accounts until its pays back alleged loans to the union. Until Cornwell’s election in March, the NFLCA worked closely with the NFLPA, if not as a de facto unit. But Cornwell, who ran for the union’s top post in 2009, has criticized the NFLPA’s leadership in the past.

Cornwell said the Hargrove declaration and the lawsuit are two instances of the NFLPA attacking coaches. He also points to a court brief filed last year and the union, he says, not fighting to protect coaches’ pensions.

Before last year’s lockout, the NFL changed coaches’ retirement planning to a 401(k)-type system rather than a pension plan. Cornwell said the NFLPA, which ostensibly was running the NFLCA, agreed to this because it could have meant more money for the players.

The court brief Cornwell cited is the one the NFLCA filed last year on behalf of the players during the lockout but which coaches quickly denounced. Cornwell said the document was filed without authorization by the coaches’ organization.