Philadelphia, PA – The scene still remains fresh in every NFL fan's mind. Owners and players standing hand-in-hand in triumphant unison at the steps of a downtown Washington office building at last July's announcement of a new collective bargaining agreement, with both sides jubiliantly proclaiming the advent of 10 years of labor peace.
As it turned out, the Kum Ba Yah period didn't even last 10 months.
The ever-present disharmony between the league and the Players Association was back to lockout-like levels following Monday's abbreviated hearing for the four current or former New Orleans Saints players suspended by Roger Goodell for their participation in the team's alleged bounty program, further heightening the tension that had already been raised by the commissioner's controversial ruling on that issue and two other subjects that also drew the ire of the union: the reduction of salary cap space for two teams found to be front-loading player contracts during the uncapped 2010 season and a recent mandate on knee and thigh pads for 2013.
Monday's developments included cries of outrage and injustice from the accused over the appeals process, the persistent presence of high-profile attorneys, subtle signs of simmering frustration within the union ranks -- and to no surprise, no immiment resolution in sight.
And perhaps most notably, the introduction of evidence that appears to damage the increasingly fragile claims that Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita have made regarding their innocence.
The four defendants looked to have a much stronger case earlier in the day due to the NFL's reluctance to disclose much of the information it had uncovered during its thorough investigation of the pay-for-performance scheme run by exiled ex-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. But when backed into a corner by the union and the players' counsel, the league unleashed a mountain of testimony and documents that has lended much more credence to the notion that a bounty program did indeed exist.
That the Saints had a system where defensive players received monetary bonuses for such accomplishments as turnovers, sacks and impact hits wasn't in dispute. Williams, who's ironically become the league's star witness in its quest to punish the suspended players, had already admitted as much when probed by NFL security officials. Slides taken from team computers, including one that featured famed bounty hunter and reality television star Duane "Dog" Chapman among pictures of several key Seattle Seahawks that was presumably used as a motivational piece prior to a 2010 playoff game, that were made public on Monday offered further proof.
The NFL still hasn't demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that Williams' players were instructed -- and compensated -- for deliberately injuring opponents, or provided the hard facts to back up its claims that Vilma offered $10,000 to any teammate who could knock out Brett Favre and Kurt Warner during the Saints' 2009 playoff run. And as the trials of O.J. Simpson, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have shown, it can be awfully challenging to pin something on a famous athlete with the resources to hire an all-star defense team and make it stick.
But because of these latest findings, it's now infinitely easier to draw the conclusion that the evidence against the players is likely there, and the league's only withholding all of its smoking guns to conceal the identities of the whistleblowers.
It may not be an open-and-shut case, but the new revelations do make it much harder to attach any credibility to Vilma, the quarterback of the New Orleans defense and one of Williams' most trusted charges who's repeatedly denied any knowledge of a bounty program. And truth be told, why should he be fully taken at his word? This isn't the first time he's been linked to an underground money-for-punishment operation, as the ex-University of Miami star was a known associate of convicted felon Nevin Shapiro, the infamous onetime Hurricanes' booster who told Yahoo! Sports last summer he paid Vilma to injure opposing players on multiple occasions. And there's a paper trail long enough to extend from Coral Gables to South Beach on that charge.
Of course, that doesn't make Vilma guilty of anything more than using very poor judgement in the past company he's kept as it pertains to this situation. Still, his rant about having his good name destroyed by an wrongful witch hunt by Goodell is becoming about as believable as the NFLPA's weak defense that Williams' use of incriminating words such as "kill the head" and "cart-off" and the likeliness of Dog the Bounty Hunter in his game plans were merely poorly chosen metaphors that shouldn't be taken literally. . Vilma's complaints about not getting a fair shake in an appeals system where Goodell ranks as "judge, jury and executioner" carry more validity, though he's blaming the wrong people for his plight. The union acquiesced to having the commissioner maintain absolute authority on all player discipline matters in the new CBA agreement, thereby tying the hands of those it's supposed to represent in scenarios such as this one. Fujita's public criticism of the process holds even less weight than his fellow suspended mates, as he was one of the 32 player representatives who consented to the deal.
Whether Goodell is abusing the enormous power he wields can be called into question, but the fact of the matter is he's well within his right to do so as long as the league's story checks out.
A TAKE ON TOMLINSON
An unfortunate consequence from Monday's events was how they overshadowed what should have been a day dedicated to LaDainian Tomlinson, who signed a ceremonial one-day contract with the San Diego Chargers to retire with the team in which the legendary running back spent the majority of his brilliant 11-year career.
Then again, it's probably fitting that Tomlinson, who turns 33 on Saturday, was forced to cede the spotlight. The two-time rushing champion and six-time All-Pro wasn't just one of the greatest players of his era, but one of the most unassuming ones as well. His prolific on-field accomplishments were matched by his refreshing humility and charitable contributions away from it, with the native Texan earning the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year Award in 2006 and the Athletes in Action/Bart Starr Award the following year for his philanthropic efforts.
And those in-game achievements were indeed hard to top. Tomlinson averaged over 1,500 rushing yards and 2,000 yards from scrimmage with the Chargers over his first seven seasons, while scoring an incredible 129 touchdowns during that superb stretch. His 162 total touchdowns are eclipsed only by Jerry Rice and Emmitt Smith on the NFL's career list, and his 13,684 rushing yards rank fifth all-time.
As is customarily the case whenever a transcendent player decides to hang up his cleats, Tomlinson's retirement has sparked plenty of discussion over where he stands in the overall hierarchy among running backs. Whether Tomlinson was superior or not to Marshall Faulk, Thurman Thomas, Marcus Allen and Payton -- the greats he's most often compared to -- is really a matter of semantics, however.
Let's just leave it at this: All four of those mentioned above are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Tomlinson is certain to be joining them in Canton as soon as he's eligible for induction in 2018.
And that's a subject that isn't up for debate.