I just don’t know what, or who, to believe anymore. Confusion and misdirection is becoming familiar with each passing day as more conflicting statements mount in the bounty case against the Saints, and Roger Goodell’s evidence against both the team and the four players accused of having a major role erodes further.
We’ve all been fooled, or so it seems right now. That includes me, as earlier this week I used words like “damning” to describe the league’s bounty evidence, words that now seem a little unfortunate. I’m still choosing to be stubborn, and believe that the most successful and profitable sports league in North America wouldn’t impose historic, precedent-setting punishments on Saints players and coaches if Goodell wasn’t fully confident in his sources and evidence. But one day after Anthony Hargrove denied it was his voice on a videotape and Mike Ornstein backtracked, the latest angry denial by an accused member of the Saints brings all the evidence into question.
Among the evidence used by the league Monday during the appeal hearings that was later shown to a group of journalists was a slide in a PowerPoint presentation indicating that Saints assistant coach Joe Vitt contributed $5,000 to a bounty on Brett Favre during the 2009 NFC championship game. Vitt’s contribution was part of a pool that also included $10,000 from linebacker Jonathan Vilma, and the pot totaled $35,000.
Vitt has been suspended for six games, a result of his role in the pay-for-performance scheme organized by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But the same confusion that’s surrounded the league’s investigation as a whole is now clouding Vitt’s punishment.
Today he vehemently denied having any involvement whatsoever in a bounty payment. He spoke to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and said he called Goodell this morning to personally voice his denial and displeasure, and he volunteered to take a lie detector test.
In the quote passed along by Schefter, you can almost feel Vitt’s veins bulging and protruding through your computer screen. Goodell should know not to mess with old, frazzled, white-haired football men.
“They’re lies. What is on that paper (shown to NFLPA and media) is false. How can anything else on that paper be considered?”
He’s right. Denials were entirely expected by the alleged guilty parties when evidence finally began to emerge, which creates a culture of hearsay and speculation. But when we begin to have multiple denials on basic yet vital factual information (Hargrove’s voice on the tape, and now Vitt’s payment), there could be a serious crack in the foundation of the league’s case against the guilty parties.
And what’s unique about Vitt’s claim is that it’s not mere hearsay. The league spoke to ProFootballTalk and verified that although Vitt was suspected of being involved in a bounty payment, his involvement couldn’t be confidently corroborated, and therefore it wasn’t used against him.
Mike Florio asked NFL senior V.P. of labor law and policy Adolpho Birch to elaborate:
“As we have stated before, what we did from an investigation standpoint is to look for things that were corroborated, and with respect to that particular point, there was no additional corroboration that would lead us to have the same level of confidence as many of the other things that we found.”
So if Vitt isn’t guilty of contributing, then what exactly is his crime? We can only assume that his misdeed was an act of omission, the same mistake that’s keeping Payton away from the Saints’ sideline for the entire 2012 season. Vitt’s title is assistant coach, and he’s often been refereed to as Payton’s mob boss, and his second in command. Therefore if he stood idly by as Williams spoke like a rabid dog and encouraged his defense to twist heads, he deserves to face a punishment.
Fair enough, but without proof of Vitt’s contribution to a bounty system, a six-game punishment is far too severe for an assistant coach. And if Vitt’s contribution couldn’t be sufficiently corroborated, how can we be confident in the proof of the payments made by Vilma and Scott Fujita?
There’s a lot of mystery and questions, and there isn’t much smoke in this gun anymore…
What’s happening (I think/hope) is that the league had a sound overall investigation to prove that a program existed. That was evident (I think/hope) when Williams admitted to his involvement and expressed guilt in a public apology. Williams’ involvement resulted in his harsh penalty, and Payton’s suspension for both enabling him, and ignoring the repeated requests from the league to halt an illegal scheme that paid defensive players to injure the opposition.
But while the team investigation seems sound, the individual investigations have been botched.