NFL player sees bounty probe as a 'smear campaign'

710116.jpg

NFL player sees bounty probe as a 'smear campaign'

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, a union leader with a record of criticizing the NFL's player-safety record, sees elements of a "smear campaign" in a bounty investigation that has sullied his reputation. Some NFL players agree, and question whether Fujita's three-game suspension has something to do with retribution. "I'm not saying the NFL is intentionally lying," Fujita said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I've been willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they may have just been working with the information they've been given, even though much of that information was inaccurate and lacked credibility. "It's their cavalier interpretation of everything that's been way off. They clearly proceeded with a public smear campaign with very little regard for the truth." NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could rule on the appeals of Fujita and the other players suspended because of their roles in the bounty program as early as Monday. Saints linebacker Scott Shanle finds it hard to ignore the symmetry of the NFL portraying Fujita as a hypocrite on player-safety matters after Fujita had done the same thing to the league. "When you look at Scott, who was here for one season (of the three spanned by the bounty probe), for him to get three games, I just felt like there had to be more of a personal issue with that," Shanle said. "When you look at how outspoken he is and a lot of the issues he tries to address, it probably doesn't sit well with the league." NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the NFL stands by its finding that Fujita gave "more than token amounts" of money to a pool that also rewarded injury-producing hits called "cart-offs" and "knockouts." "The process gave all of the players every opportunity to raise arguments and provide any mitigating information," Aiello said. "Scott Fujita unfortunately chose not to avail himself of the process. Nothing that he has asserted in his various public statements undermines the findings of the investigation." Fujita, who now plays for Cleveland, was one of four current or former Saints suspended in the bounty probe. Two of them, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, still play for New Orleans. The other, Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, left New Orleans after 2010, while Fujita left after 2009, the first season covered by the investigation. In 2010, Fujita became a member of the NFLPA executive committee, and has since echoed comments by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) comparing the NFL's 2009 position on concussions' links to brain disease to the way the tobacco industry denied knowledge that smoking caused cancer. Fujita argued Goodell undermined his own credibility on player-safety matters when he pushed for an 18-game regular season. He called for the NFL to employ independent neurological consultants after Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was knocked out of a game, but allowed to return, despite later being diagnosed with a concussion. Browns players say Fujita challenged Goodell's answers to a range of questions including how a lockout would affect players' health coverage when the commissioner visited the team in 2010. "Scott wasn't scared to ask the tough questions that some of us wouldn't or some of us didn't even know to ask," Browns tight end Benjamin Watson said. "Scott wanted to make sure the commissioner owned up to all that stuff and ... you could tell that Mr. Goodell wasn't comfortable answering some of those questions." Former Browns linebacker Eric Barton added, "Most people in the room were like, this guy (the commissioner) is full of it and Scott just called him out, and it was almost like, Oh, Scott, you're going to be in trouble.'" After seeing evidence the NFL presented against him in last week's appeal hearing on the four players' suspensions, Fujita has more questions: -- Why has the NFL linked him to bounties in its public statements, while its disciplinary letter announcing his suspension acknowledges there is no evidence he "pledged money toward a specific bounty" on a particular player? -- Why does that same letter state he was a member of the Saints in the 2010 season, when he was with Cleveland? And what does that say about the quality of the investigation? -- If the investigation was going on for parts of three years, why did no one contact him before the league's first report in March? -- Why did Goodell twice call his personal phone after union attorneys notified the NFL they were representing Fujita, meaning Goodell was not supposed to call him without an NFLPA attorney on the line? Aiello responded that while the NFL never accused Fujita of targeting a specific opponent, his discipline letter clearly stated "that he contributed a significant sum to the general pool that included payments for nonspecific bounties in the form of cart-offs' and knockouts.'" Fujita was not contacted about the probe earlier, Aiello said, because the league was unable to identify specific players and their roles in the program until late in 2011. "Every individual that was eventually disciplined was invited to speak to our office prior to any decision on discipline," Aiello said. "None of the players, including Mr. Fujita, agreed to be interviewed during the process." Aiello added that Goodell's calls to Fujita were in response to calls Fujita had placed to Goodell, but the NFLPA said Goodell should not have been making personal calls to players facing punishment at that point. "It's inappropriate. It is completely outside legal conduct rules," NFLPA lawyer Heather McPhee said. "You cannot directly contact a represented party when you know a party's represented and it's especially odd in this case when Roger purports to be the judge. Picture a judge getting on the phone with a defendant or a suspect." After the second call, McPhee emailed NFL counsel Jeff Pash and Goodell, saying Fujita would be happy to talk with Goodell with counsel present, but there was no further communication, and Fujita learned days later he'd been suspended. Fujita said his only chance to speak with Goodell directly came in early March after the release of the initial bounty report, which did not identify players, although Fujita's name had been leaked. Fujita said he called Goodell to explain locker room culture as it relates to tough talk and informal performance incentives, and how it could be misconstrued. He said Goodell told him then that "he would have no problem coming down hard on Saints coaches, but that when it comes to players, he's not quite sure what he's got." Fujita acknowledges he offered teammates cash for big plays, mainly because "that's the way it was done when I was a young player and I kind of looked at that as paying it forward." But Fujita contends he never contributed to team-organized pools, instead paying pledges directly to teammates. The NFL's current collective bargaining agreement applies only to pools organized by team officials, like the one former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has apologized for running. According to a transcript AP obtained from the appeal hearing, NFL outside counsel Mary Jo White described an unnamed coach and another witness saying Fujita pledged unspecified sums of cash for "big plays" during the 2009-10 playoffs. The NFL also presented printed reproductions of handwritten notes, which White said show Fujita pledging 1,000 to a pool for sacks and forced fumbles during the regular season, and 2,000 during the playoffs to a "general pool," which she said in part paid for injury-inducing plays. The note indicated safety Roman Harper, who was not punished, pledged 5,000 to the general pool, and that assistant head coach Joe Vitt pledged 5,000 to knock then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC title game. Hoping to protect those who helped their investigation, the NFL did not present the original notes or identify who wrote them. "We don't know who wrote the note. We haven't seen original, and the fact that Joe Vitt's name is on it proves how bogus it is," Fujita said. "No way he ever contributed not even 100 for anything. It's not his style." Vitt has said the part of the document showing his pledge is false, which he said raises questions about all of the evidence. However the bounty saga winds up, Fujita said he has no regrets about his aggressive tactics as a union leader. "I've had a few concussions myself. I have a dear friend (former Saints player Steve Gleason) who has ALS. I have a friend and former mentor (Lew Bush) who died earlier this year. Then there was the tragic death of someone I've admired for so long, Junior Seau," Fujita said. "I can't say for sure that all of these things happened because of football, but I've seen enough to have some concerns. I was elected to fight for these men, so in no way do I regret that."

A's spring training update Day 6: Davis savors winter in Oakland

A's spring training update Day 6: Davis savors winter in Oakland

MESA, Ariz. — Khris Davis enjoyed quite an offseason travel itinerary, checking out Toronto, taking in the beaches of Hawaii and dining on lobster in Belize.

However, it was the time spent in his adopted hometown of Oakland that most struck a chord with the A’s left fielder. After finishing his first season with the A’s, Davis followed through on his plan to make his offseason home in Oakland, and he was glad he did.

“I got to just feel the heart of the city,” he said upon arriving at camp Sunday. “That was basically the purpose of why I was there. … I wanted to feel Oakland. I love it, honestly. I love the city.”

He trained at Dogtown Athletic, a gym in West Oakland. He took part in the A’s holiday party for kids at the Oakland Zoo, joined by A’s Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson, who grew up in the city.

“Just to feel these kids’ happiness,” Davis said. “They didn’t look at me as a baseball player. They just looked at me as a role model kind of.”

It should be music to the ears of A’s fans that the team’s most dangerous hitter has a love affair with the city he plays in. If the A’s ever entertained the idea of trying to sign Davis to a multi-year extension, and that’s purely hypothetical here, it would help that Davis feels comfortable in his surroundings.

Even when he described Oakland in edgy terms, such as when he said it “has its dark side,” he seemed to find it endearing.

In return, Davis felt the love from the fan base in 2016, hitting a career-high 42 homers with a team-best 102 RBI. That was despite the awful start he got off to, hitting .143 and mustering just one RBI over his first 12 games.

Obviously, any chances the A’s have of improving last year’s American League-worst offense rely on the 29-year-old Davis having another big year. But over-analysis is one thing he tries to avoid.

“I don’t want to get caught up in last year — the slow start and the strong finish, whatever,” he said. “However it was, I’m just ready to do this year.”

Davis decided to back out of his plan to play for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic, saying his main priority was preparing for his A’s season.

“My main focus is to perform for the organization,” he said. “I feel like I want to get off on the right foot this year.”

NOTEWORTHY: Heavy showers continued to pelt Mesa on Sunday, spoiling the A’s first full-squad workout. The hitters were relegated to swinging in the cages and playing catch, while pitchers were scheduled for a day off from throwing on the mound anyway.

“If ever there was a day, at least for the pitchers, that you don’t need to (work out), it’s today,” manager Bob Melvin said. “But when you have everybody there on the first day, you wanna get out on the field and do everything. Hopefully we can incorporate everything tomorrow.”

The A’s have a whopping 70 players in camp, more than in any other spring Melvin can remember as a big league manager. He addressed the full team in a meeting Sunday morning.

His message?

“We’re gonna have to outwork, out-hustle everybody like we have in the past,” he said, “and get back to playing the game with the same tenacity that we did a couple years ago.”

FAMILIAR FACE: Longtime A’s second baseman Mark Ellis is back for the second year in a row as a spring infield instructor. The plan is for Ellis to spend a week with the team now, then another week later in camp.

“I’ll take Mark Ellis as many days as I can have him,” Melvin said.

LIGHTER SIDE: Nursing his broken right foot, starting pitcher Daniel Mengden has been making his way through the clubhouse on a knee scooter in order to keep pressure off his foot.

Apparently, it looks more fun than it really is.

“I contribute to society Friday, when I can start walking again,” Mengden quipped.

Giants spring training Day 7: Rule change should help Bochy

Giants spring training Day 7: Rule change should help Bochy

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On one of the many nights last season when his bullpen imploded, Bruce Bochy nearly put a catcher on the mound. Trevor Brown ended up playing an inning of third base on June 28 as the Giants gave up eight runs over the final two innings in a brutal loss to the A’s, and he said this week that he was told he was the next man up on the mound. 

That night was an odd one, as a tired bullpen was waiting for Sergio Romo to get activated off a rehab assignment and trying to get by without long reliever Chris Stratton, who had thrown 57 pitches out of the ‘pen the night before. The bench was also short because Joe Panik was about to be put on the concussion DL.

Bochy hopes he doesn’t have to deal with such a situation this season, and not just because the bullpen should be much improved. The disabled list lasts 10 days now, not 15, and Bochy is thrilled with the new rule.

“The DL thing, I really like it,” he said. “You get caught in that gray area so often.” 

Bochy met with league officials on Saturday to go over some of the rule changes. DL stints can now be made retroactive just three days, but it’s still a vast improvement overall. 

“With (position) players and pitchers it’s going to make it easier to DL guys,” Bochy said. “If you’re looking at (starting) pitchers, they could miss just one start.”

The Giants have often played a man or more short, trying to get by day-by-day to give a position player or starter time to heal. Around camp, this could be called the Angel Pagan Rule, as the former Giants outfielder often missed a week or so before officially going on the DL. At times, Bochy has been patient with players like Buster Posey and Hunter Pence, knowing that even if they missed a week, keeping them off the DL could still earn the Giants seven or eight games with a big bat back in the lineup. If a future diagnosis is that a player will miss a week, it’ll be much easier to swallow putting him on the 10-day DL than it was for the 15-day. Likewise, the Giants will take advantage of the change if a pitcher will have to miss a start. 

Bochy has said often that he would like every reliever to go on the DL during the season to freshen up. That’ll make more sense now, and it should keep the Giants from having to play as many games where the bullpen is gassed and a backup catcher is preparing to pitch. For guys like Stratton — a versatile pitcher on the 40-man roster — it should also lead to increased trips up to the big leagues to fill gaps. 

INJURY UPDATE: Pence (side muscle) took 25 swings during a live BP session in the cage and Bochy said he’s doing much better. That was about the only significant activity Sunday. Once again, the workout was rained out. Bochy said the Giants have enough time to get guys ready for the Cactus League opener on Feb. 24, but they’ll likely hold some big-name pitchers out of the early games. Brandon Crawford and Posey will get plenty of early starts to prepare for the WBC. 

PROSPECT WATCH: If the early games are turned over to prospects, Dan Slania will be an interesting guy to watch. Slania is listed at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, so he always had the look of an imposing reliever. But his greatest success last season came after a surprise move to the rotation. 

Slania, a 2013 fifth-round pick out of Notre Dame, got a call on his 24th birthday telling him to prepare to start because of an injury in Richmond’s rotation. He had not started a game since high school, but his four-pitch mix worked. He had a 5.32 ERA out of the bullpen but it dropped to 1.48 in 10 starts for the Flying Squirrels. In two Triple-A starts, he struck out 14 over 13 innings while allowing just eight hits and two runs. The Giants put him on their 40-man roster to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft. 

“He had a great year last year,” Bochy said. “He’s in camp for a reason. He’s got great stuff and a good makeup.”

RULE CHANGE: One more thing that came out of that rules meeting: Managers who are out of challenges now have to wait until the eighth inning to ask an umpire to look at a play.

QUOTABLE: “We know he’s better off taking some days. We talked about it (with him). He agrees that it’ll help him.” Bochy on Pence’s workload. The right fielder is coming off two injury-marred seasons, and the Giants have no intention of even trying to get him back to his Iron Man days.