No story in the NFL this offseason has been more sordid than the "player bounty" scandal that has engulfed the New Orleans Saints, leading to the suspensions of players and coaches both in New Orleans and elsewhere.
However, questions have arisen regarding the extent of the evidence the league has against some of the parties it punished, and unless the league makes the entirety of its case against them public, those questions are only going to become louder.
At least part of the league's evidence became public earlier this week, when the statement that current Green Bay Packers and former Saints defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove submitted to the NFL in regards to his involvement in the scandal was obtained by Yahoo! Sports.
Hargrove, who received an eight-game suspension for his role in "Bountygate," told the league that he was instructed by former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and assistant coach Joe Vitt (who were also both suspended) to "play dumb" when asked by the league about the existence of the bounty program. That assertion was flatly denied by Vitt to The New Orleans Times-Picayune.
"At no time did I ever tell Anthony Hargrove to lie or deny the existence (of the alleged bounty program)," Vitt said. "He can say whatever he wants to say. It just didn't happen."
Also, at no part in Hargrove's statement did he actually admit to knowledge of or participation in a program that offered financial incentives to Saints defenders for injuring opposing players. In fact, Hargrove relayed to ESPN's Kevin Negandhi that he was surprised to see his statement become public and the NFL "grossly mischaracterized" his words.
I'm disappointed that "the Declaration" was leaked. The intent of "the Declaration" was to let the NFL know exactly what happened in March of 2010. Call me naive, but I did not expect them to publicize the fact that I had sent them "the Declaration." But since they did, and because they grossly mischaracterized my words, it obviously became a hot item and subsequently was leaked by someone.
Hargrove's indignation aside, the disparity between the league's claims and the vehement denials of most of the suspended parties regarding their involvement in the scandal is precisely why commissioner Roger Goodell should put the NFL's cards on the table.
If there truly is clear and compelling evidence that confirms the existence of the bounty program and implicates these players and coaches, then the NFL should allow this evidence to see the light of day.
This sentiment has been echoed by the accused. Both Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (who received a three-game suspension) and Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (who was suspended for the entire 2012 season) have demanded to see the evidence against them.
These demands have been met with silence by the NFL to this point, at least according the Times Picayune's account of an interview that Vilma's attorney gave WWL Radio.
"The fact that we haven't received a single piece of evidence from the commissioner not only makes the whole process suspect but made it important that we ask the commissioner as specifically as we possibly could what we think we should be able to see in order to even the playing field and in order to give Jonathan a fair hearing," attorney Peter Ginsberg said. "And I must say that the commissioner still hasn't responded to this most recent request. This is not the first time we have asked them for the evidence."
Ginsberg contends that the NFL is reluctant to produce this "evidence" because it isn't nearly as compelling as Goodell and the league have made it out to be. However, a former U.S. Attorney hired by the NFL to review the evidence prior to the suspensions being handed down concluded that "the factual basis for the sanctions is quite strong."
One way or another, the evidence is almost certainly going to be made public eventually. The NFLPA has vowed to fight the suspensions in court if necessary, and it may well come to that. The players' appeals of the suspensions will be heard by Goodell, so any sort of reversal would appear unlikely.
That makes it all the more prudent for Goodell and the league to reveal the evidence they possess, unless doing so would violate the collective bargaining agreement or create legal entanglements, which doesn't appear to be the case.
This entire ordeal has been a huge black eye for both the Saints and the NFL. At this point, public opinion outside of New Orleans has been mainly in the NFL's favor, as any sort of attempt to intentionally injure players obviously cannot be tolerated.
However, with a messy legal battle looming on the horizon, that could change. The more time that passes without the National Football League revealing what evidence it really does have against the alleged "Bountygate" conspirators, the more that some will question how much this is about punishing wrongdoing versus a witch hunt from the NFL trying to save face in an era where player safety has become a very hot topic.
Goodell would be best served by pulling back the curtain and showing the accused parties, the media and the fans that the suspensions were all about the former and not about the latter. If not, the National Football League may soon find that the scandal in the Big Easy isn't the only public relations mess they have on their hands.