|Did Gregg Williams' harsh words, caught on tape, create much tougher punishments? (Getty Images)|
One Saints player on the phone was angry.
"Everyone in the bounty case is being railroaded," he said, "I can't believe this is happening."
Another sounded tired but determined. "Our franchise has become a cautionary tale," he said, "and we've done nothing wrong."
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And in what was one of the more emotional and informative discussions on the bounty scandal, which continues to unfold in daily snippets and occasional legal actions, a player closely associated with the case wrote in part: "The Saints had something bad going on in the locker room, but being railroaded by the NFL isn't really right, either."
For the past several weeks, some Saints players have contacted me, saying those accused in the bounty case, as well as the team itself, have been treated unfairly by the media (including by me). They spoke on the condition their identities were protected, fearing retribution from the NFL (in fact, Saints players said repeatedly that it can't be overstated just how much people in that locker room right now fear the NFL).
So I listened as some as Saints players told their side. What they said was somewhat eye-opening.
The overall message is that the NFL really doesn't have proof of a bounty system, and if it did, it would release that proof.
That's not a surprise. Where things get interesting is when players break down every piece of known evidence the NFL has released. That's when doubts about the NFL's case creep in. Creep. Not set up permanent residence, but creep.
This isn't to say the Saints are right. In fact, no player was able to answer satisfactorily the biggest question of all: Why would Roger Goodell risk his reputation and that of the entire sport on a bluff?
Nonetheless, players expressed these concerns:
• Players say they have seen the discipline letters from the NFL to the Saints' Sean Payton, Gregg Williams, Joe Vitt and Mickey Loomis. They claim those letters don't simply state the allegations and the imposed punishment. They claim the letters tell the four men, in general terms, that if they stay mostly quiet, the league will let them back into the sport after a certain number of games. (The NFL denied this, but wouldn't address other claims by Saints players.)
Implied in that, Saints players say, is that if the coaches do talk, their suspensions could go longer. This is why Payton and especially Williams have said almost nothing.
• They say the banned assistant, Williams, didn't admit to a pay-to-injure scheme in his statement, that he didn't actually write the statement (the NFL did), and he agreed to whatever the NFL wanted so he could one day coach again.
• They say the players are being punished more because of Williams' ugly words caught on tape than any specific actions on the field related to bounties.
• The Saints believe they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time in NFL history. Williams' vitriol, along with the NFL's desire to eradicate bounties and protect itself from lawsuits, meant the league was going to make examples of the Saints whether there was real proof or not, the players maintain.
"It's been well-documented that [Williams] had a similar pay-for-performance system at other places he's coached," said one player close to the investigation, "... so now players are being punished for just the dumb luck of being in New Orleans at a time when such a culture was present, and also at a time when the league needs to take a hard stance on such behavior for perception and liability reasons. There might be anecdotal evidence of a few players saying some over-the-top sh-- to mirror their coach. I've heard players threaten rape and sodomy in pregame speeches. Immature? Yes. But actually paying and accepting money to injure? Nope."
• They claim the NFL is manipulating what little evidence it has. Players point to how the league released a statement saying former Saints lineman Anthony Hargrove "submitted a signed declaration to the league that established not only the existence of the program at the Saints, but also that he knew about and participated in it."
Later, Hargrove's actual statement was leaked to the media, and Hargrove himself said the league "grossly mischaracterized" his words. Hargrove maintains he didn't actually confirm the existence of a bounty program but told the NFL Saints coaches instructed him to deny one existed. These are two different things, Saints players say, are an example of the NFL's duplicity.
I'm told almost all of the Saints involved in the bounty scandal (and their lawyers) have stayed in close contact. Everyone is sharing everything they know about the case.
League sources privately continue to insist there is a great deal of proof of the Saints bounty system, and releasing it would compromise the sources who provided it.
What's quickly becoming clear is we may never know the information the NFL possesses because chances of the league releasing it all, or even the majority of it, are almost zero. It may stay locked away in a vault forever.
And while the assumption has been that the NFL has the goods, the Saints players do make you do something when they speak: They make you stop and wonder.