If the NFL’s “Bountygate” scandal has become too complicated for you to follow -- what with the appeals, reduced suspensions, recusals and a civil suit -- here’s all you need to know: In Scott Fujita, the league chose the wrong scapegoat.
When the story first broke last spring, it seemed simple enough. The National Football League claimed to have proof that several members of the New Orleans Saints had created a slush fund in 2009 and 2010 to reward teammates who injured members of opposing teams. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell quickly meted out some of the toughest punishments in league history, and was duly applauded by Bob Costas and other self-appointed guardians of sportsmanship and fair play.
For Goodell, whose league was already being sued by thousands of former players or their families for its handling of their injuries, Bountygate presented the perfect PR opportunity. It would not only allow him to demonstrate he was serious about protecting players; it would allow him to do it without implicating the whole league in the process. This was just a handful of thugs on a single team.
The problem -- or one of them, anyway -- is that this handful of thugs included Fujita.
Fujita, who is 33, has an unusual background for an NFL linebacker: He was a walk-on in college, at the University of California at Berkeley, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2001 and a master’s in education in 2002. He is also adopted, and his father was born in a Japanese internment camp in World War II. (Fujita and his adoptive mother are white.)
Fujita’s NFL career eventually brought him to New Orleans, and three years before the Saints won the Super Bowl in 2009, his teammates named him a captain. In 2010, he signed with the Cleveland Browns; the same year, he joined the NFL Players Association’s Player Safety and Welfare Committee.
In the face of the NFL’s Bountygate allegations, Fujita vehemently denied ever giving or receiving any money for hurting opposing players. For that matter, he added, no one on his Saints team had. Fujita said he would welcome the opportunity to confront whatever evidence the league had against him.
That opportunity is unlikely to ever arise. It has been seven months since the so-called scandal was first reported, and it has held up about as well as the case against President Barack Obama’s U.S. citizenship. Most recently, a grasping Goodell sent a memo to all 32 teams outing the league’s apparent whistle-blower, the Minnesota Vikings’ Jimmy Kennedy -- who then accused Goodell of spreading “blatant lies” about him.
The only “evidence” the league has produced so far is an affidavit from the Saints ex-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams saying that one of Fujita’s teammates had placed a $10,000 bounty on quarterback Brett Favre. This is the same Gregg Williams who was infamously caught on tape in the Saints locker room goading his team to intentionally target opponents’ heads. (“Kill the head and the body will die,” he said. “Kill the head and the body will die.”) He is currently unemployed, having been indefinitely suspended from football, and presumably wants to work again someday. He has every reason to tell the NFL what it wants to hear.
As for Fujita, Goodell has been forced to admit that he was innocent -- sort of. He acknowledged that Fujita didn’t participate in the bounty program, and reduced his suspension from three games to one. Lest anyone get the idea that he was absolving Fujita, though, Goodell added that he was “disappointed” he didn’t do more to stop the program.
The accusation is farcical, given Fujita’s efforts on behalf of player safety. In response, Fujita issued the harshest indictment of a sitting sports commissioner by an active player I’ve ever seen:
“The Commissioner says he is disappointed in me,” it reads in part. “The truth is, I’m disappointed in him. His positions on player health and safety since a 2009 congressional hearing on concussions have been inconsistent at best.” Goodell’s “actions or lack thereof,” Fujita writes, “are by the league’s own definition, ’conduct detrimental.’”
Read the whole thing, as they say. Then remember what a big deal it was when former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, having just been fined $5,000 by then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle for wearing a headband with a corporate logo on it, suited up for his next game in a headband that read simply, “Rozelle.”
McMahon was needling his boss. Fujita is impeaching his. He is hardly alone. Goodell may have been judged the “winner” of last year’s player lockout, but in the process, he has mobilized his opposition. The past few months have been all about rolling back Goodellian overreach -- most notably, his handling of the replacement-referee debacle.
As it happens, Fujita may have played his last NFL game. He recently suffered a neck injury, and with a wife and three young daughters, he may not be inclined to put himself at additional risk.
Fujita is still appealing his one-game suspension, so when I called him this week, he couldn’t say much about the specifics of Bountygate. (He intends to continue to seek exoneration, even if he never takes the field again.) Our conversation turned more generally to the banality of football violence and the Williams tape. “I’ve heard at least 100 different variations of the same language dating back to when I was 8 years old,” Fujita said.
Maybe you think Fujita is a hypocrite for hammering opponents week after week even as he was advocating for player safety. I happen to think he was just trying to make a living. And can you really blame him for not standing up and saying, “Now hold it right there, sir,” when the defensive coordinator gives the standard pregame pep talk?
Goodell can try to pin responsibility for the game’s brutality on a group of “rogue” players. Eventually, however, he is going to have to confront the reality that violence is embedded in the culture of football. Strike that: Violence is football. No fine or suspension, no matter how large or how long, will make the game safer. As Fujita told me, “This game played within the rules is what’s dangerous.”
(Jonathan Mahler is a sports columnist for Bloomberg View. A long-time contributor to the New York Times Magazine, he is the author of the best-selling “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning,” “The Challenge,” and “Death Comes to Happy Valley.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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