|Vitt picked up a rare win as the NFL recanted its claim of his payment to players. (Getty Images)|
If the Bountygate fallout has taught us anything at all, it's that there will always be instances unforeseen by any collective bargaining agreement, and that there always will, and frankly should, be friction between labor and management. Only 10 months into the signing of this 10-year document, already it is being tested in an era of unprecedented offseason developments, some surreal and some just bizarre.
The NFLPA will continue to fight for issues it feels are important to its constituents, and to vigorously oppose the owners on matters in which it believes the league has failed, with the bounty investigation and hyper-stringent penalties the most glaring example. Likewise, the NFL will do what it believes must be done to protect the best interests of the game, and so the sides will invariably clash. That's the business.
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Thus, even with two grievances denied -- still awaiting appeal -- and with an accused player, Jonathan Vilma, suing the commissioner, there is still the potential for further legal action against the league, according to sources with knowledge of the situation. And the NFL's displays of evidence to both the players, and the media, at the appeals hearing Monday has in no way dulled the union's will to continue fighting these penalties. The NFL claims the existence of a widespread bounty system with Saints personnel admitting as much during the investigation; players continue to vehemently deny it, Anthony Hargrove the latest to do so, and coach Joe Vitt came out on the attack Wednesday regarding allegations he paid $5,000 to players, which the NFL then recanted.
Just another 72 hours in this awkward affair.
If anything, Roger Goodell's drastic punishments have only enhanced the NFLPA's rank-and-file's rancor about the extent of the commissioner's powers. Of course, with the new CBA doing little to mute Goodell's authority on off-field discipline, this will be an uphill battle, but the quest is on. During the CBA talks, the issue of curbing Goodell's reach was trumped by some financial factors, and many of the players leading the charge as executive committee members weren't accustomed to running afoul of the league office and the topic didn't seem to be paramount with all.
It was sacrificed in the quest to stave off 18-game seasons and the like. In hindsight, those leading the NFLPA charge needed more foresight, and we shall see what can be accomplished in that regard now. But if anything, the NFL's aggressive tactics in the bounty case have emboldened the union's fight and unified them.
The handling of the Saints case has framed the scope of the commissioner's powers as an issue that can touch all players, even a ranking union official like Scott Fujita. Is it too late to mitigate Goodell's power? Perhaps. But remember, not all of the changes that come in this sport are through CBA talks. Major initiatives with the war on concussions were worked out before the lockout and construction of this CBA, and there is a constant dialogue between the sides with deals cut as addendums to the CBA with some regularity (the controversial salary cap agreement that stripped the Cowboys and Redskins of millions in cap space is one recent example).
So, what's the potential end game?
Well, the "global settlement" that ended the lockout clearly didn't resolve all dangling issues. There has been little progress on HGH talks, and I would be stunned if there will be any budging by the players on that anytime soon. It remains a potential chip for further horse trading. The league has left open the option of re-exploring the potential of an 18-game season, and it would take massive concessions to ever get it. But these are the kind of swaps that could at least at some point be discussed.
Say for instance that for the league to get HGH testing fully implemented, it might have to give the union the right to opt out of the CBA early, or agree to a panel of outside officials to work alongside Goodell on doling out suspensions. The NFLPA might not have a ton of leverage -- and its inability to get more of his power in check before this CBA was signed looms very large -- but it certainly has enough to continue the kind of back-and-forth that might ultimately lead to the resolution of some of these macro issues that continue to drive them apart.
There won't be any backdown and, as I noted, there could be a few more legal tricks up some sleeves. The legacy of this CBA could end up being as much about the differences that lingered on as much all that was sorted out. And I can't say I blame the NFLPA for bucking the league on the bounty saga.
First of all, if you have spent any time around Gregg Williams, you know that bluster and hyperbole are very much a part of what made his defenses so good. He is a master of pushing buttons and whipping players into a frenzy -- I covered his defense in Washington for four years -- but much of it was pointed rhetoric, and that's it. To dissect and parse it out literally, out of that context, tells a story not indicative of how his teams truly played on the field. The league has found notations for "knockouts" and "cart-offs", but how much of that was literal, as I don't recall a steady procession of Saints opponents being raced from the field week after week.
And I've got news for you: There isn't a defensive coordinator in the game who wouldn't relish being able to play two or three quarters of a game with the opposing starting quarterback on the sidelines through a good, clean hit. That's football, people. This ain't Chinese checkers.
With Williams, it's bombastic display for motivational impact, and it goes on to some degree or another everywhere. It's not great for the game and the Saints took it too far, but do we know that players making millions were intentionally trying to injure opposing players and then receiving actual payments for doing so? And if you aren't convinced, then does the league owe it to its fans to go to all lengths to display just that?
The dirty little secret of pay-for-performance has been exposed, again, but this can't be painted as a New Orleans problem. It has been going on forever. The Green Bay Packers were found to be doing as much in 2007 and received no real penalties, yet the subjects found to be involved in this case have been hit penalties the likes of which we have never seen before.
And the league is alleging obviously much more was taking place here, but again I ask: Do you feel as if they have proved it in the court of public opinion, or to the average NFL player? Especially now with former Saints practice squad player Earl Heyman publicly refuting the league's contention that Hargrove was caught by microphones yelling about being paid for a hit on Brett Favre.
And as best I can tell, the most damaging evidence the league has shared with players or the media points to a fairly elaborate pay-for-performance program, but lacks that true smoking gun laying out intent that members of this defense were going around trying to maim people on a weekly basis, and expecting actual payments for those transgressions. (Some of the ledgers the league has discovered, Saints players would characterize more as an imaginary scoreboard or sorts, and not actual documentation that any payments were actually made outside of sacks, forced fumbles, hits behind the line of scrimmage, etc?). The league says individuals have admitted much more, but yet the rebuttals continue.
Could be only those directly involved in the case have seen evidence directly proving these payments to injure, but given the sideshow atmosphere this has taken on, I would figure it's in the best interest of the league to pull no punches now. This investigation is by no means beyond reproach, and recent events create more questions than answers.
Vilma has gone to a level never before seen with his lawsuit. Hargrove stopped just short of taking a lie detector test in front of the league office Tuesday as he read his emotional statement declaring he did not utter anything about being paid on a videotape used as evidence by the NFL Monday. Then Vitt goes ahead and says he would take the test. And yes, many in the Saints organization should have been more forthcoming initially about matters of pay-for-performance, and part of their cover-up and initial deceit had to play some role in these harsh penalties. But that also doesn't mean that every statement given to the league, anonymously or not, in the investigation was correct or that all of this happening as literally as some of the locker room language might make it seem.
With so much power resting with the league, at times it seems the rules were being made up as this played out, right through the reportedly sudden decision to call in selected media members Monday for an impromptu briefing. A few more checks and balances wouldn't seem to be out of line to me. Maybe the NFLPA will manage to accomplish some of that goal, though it would hard to bet on it.
Regardless, you can't convince me this ongoing circus has been good for the business of the game, with players suing the commissioner and all, and it certainly has damaged Goodell's standing in the eyes of many players. He's easy to like and has had been a strong steward of the game throughout his tenure, but he and the league have opened themselves up to criticism here, and I'm not sure this will go away easily.
Building some better consensus early in the process, altering the wording of some of those press releases might have helped, and the league contends, strongly, that the NFLPA itself was not nearly as cooperative as it could have or should have been through the process. It's the ultimate he said/he said, and on and on it goes.
The dueling press releases and statements can be monotonous and tedious and painful at times to follow. But we should expect nothing less. It's part of the fabric of any big business, and football, with players risking so much to play and billions in revenue in the balance, is nothing if not big business. You can put the NFL and NFLPA right up there with Red Sox vs. Yankees, or Ali vs. Frazier, and given the very different masters these entities serve, I totally get it.
It's a partnership for sure, but a prickly one at best. Not even securing 10 years of labor "peace" during a period of record growth and prosperity can change that.