NEW ORLEANS – The agent for suspended defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove says the NFL has used semantics, but not hard evidence, as the basis for punishing current and former Saints players in its bounty investigation.
In a statement emailed to The Associated Press on Sunday, on the eve of sanctioned players' appeal hearing, agent Phil Williams asked dozens of questions of the NFL, including whether league investigators made Hargrove a central figure in the bounty probe because his past drug suspensions made him an "easy target."
Williams also asked why the NFL released evidence strategically rather than sharing as much information as possible in a matter that has harmed players' reputations, and why the league made examples out of a select few players when many players around the league have taken part in performance pools.
"If these men have committed such grievous crimes that you have determined that their careers should be in danger and ... their names sullied, why be so secretive about the 'evidence' that you use to condemn them?" Williams' statement said. "Do you actually have any concrete evidence that any player from another team was injured as a result of a "bounty" and that a player from the Saints was therefore paid accordingly? ... Is it possible that the overwhelming majority of this pressing dilemma is about semantics?"
Hargrove, now with Green Bay, has been suspended eight games. Saints linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma was suspended the whole season, while Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended four games and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended three games.
All four players have appeal hearings scheduled before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Monday.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the statement by Hargrove's agent.
The Saints also have been punished harshly as an organization, including a full-season suspension of head coach Sean Payton. General manager Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games. The team also was fined $500,000 and docked second-round draft picks this year and next.
Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely. His former players have said Williams purposefully used nasty, violent language as a motivational tool, but that his speeches weren't meant to be taken literally.
On Friday afternoon, the NFL forwarded evidence to the four punished players, in line with a provision in the league's current labor agreement requiring evidence which will be presented at an appeal hearing to be shared three calendar days beforehand.
Representatives of the players have said evidence they have seen indicates the Saints had a pay-for-performance program common among many teams, but that the NFL has shared nothing showing that any player was ever paid for injuring a targeted opponent.
Phil Williams said the fact that the NFL waited until the last allowable time to share evidence indicates that league officials are more interested in making it harder to challenge their findings than they are in the truth.
Williams also suggested that the NFL was being hypocritical in saying that much of Hargrove's punishment stemmed from Hargrove lying to NFL investigators when they interviewed him in 2010.
Since that interview, Hargrove has signed a declaration in which he described how he followed Gregg Williams' instructions to deny the existence of a bounty program when questioned about it by the league. However, Hargrove's sworn statement does not say that he lied or say what he knew about the bounty program that the league has said the Saints ran from 2009 to 2011.
Last month, before Hargrove's declaration was made public, Mary Jo White, an outside lawyer hired by the NFL to review its bounty probe, said Hargrove's statement confirmed the existence of a bounty program and that he initially lied to investigators about it.
"Why did you state that Anthony "admitted to lying" when he has done no such thing?" Phil Williams' statement said.
Williams said the NFL should be sympathetic to the fact that Hargrove was in the process of trying to resurrect his career after a yearlong drug suspension and was put in a "remarkably difficult position" by his coaches.
Williams added he did not understand why Goodell insisted on his right to hear the appeal in the bounty case, rather than stipulating to the NFL Players Association's request that a more neutral arbitrator hear appeals.
"Do you care about NFL players enough to be above board with them?" Williams' statement said. "Is there anything to be lost by allowing those who are impartial to have a say-so in whether these judged men are truly given a shot at justice?"