Over the last few weeks, several members of the New Orleans Saints have reached out to CBSSports.com columnist Mike Freeman to express their doubts and frustrations with the NFL's investigation into the team's bounty program and the discipline that resulted.
According to the comments, the players seem to doubt that the league actually has proof that the team implemented a bounty system. They sense that the players and coaches are being treated unfairly by the NFL.
The players, who remained anonymous, contend that the letters sent to inform head coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, linebackers coach Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis of their punishments implied they would have their suspensions reduced if they kept quiet about the issue. Payton was suspended for the 2012 season, Williams was banned from the league indefinitely, and Vitt and Loomis will have to miss six and eight games, respectively.
The league found that between 2009 and 2011, Williams implemented a program in which players were promised and awarded cash payments for hurting opponents.
Another assertion is that Williams' reputation for administering bounty programs during previous NFL coaching stints prompted the league to make an example of the Saints.
"It's been well-documented that (Williams) had a similar pay-for-performance system at other places he's coached," a player close to the investigation told Freeman, "so now players are being punished for just the dumb luck of being in New Orleans at a time when such a culture was present, and also at a time when the league needs to take a hard stance on such behavior for perception and liability reasons. There might be anecdotal evidence of a few players saying some over-the-top (expletive) to mirror their coach. ... Immature? Yes. But actually paying and accepting money to injure? Nope."
It's understandable that the Saints feel as though they are being unfairly targeted by the league. They won't have their head coach or Jonathan Vilma, their middle linebacker and team captain, for the duration of the 2012 season. They will also be without Will Smith, their top pass-rushing defensive end, for the first four games of the year. They've seen little evidence to justify the harsh punishment and have, in their estimation, poked holes in what they have seen.
One thing in Freeman's article that stuck out to me, though, was that one or two players close to the case and/or investigation said that the Saints "had something bad going on in the locker room" and that "such a culture was present" when referring to the bounty programs under Williams. In other words, even those who are sympathetic to the Saints' plight suggested that something was going on within the locker room.
It's hard to imagine that Commissioner Roger Goodell would have handed down such steep punishment without substantial evidence to support it. But until the league figures out a way to release evidence without compromising the identities of those who cooperated with the league's investigation -- who deserve the same protection against reprisals afforded the Saints players who anonymously contributed to Freeman's article -- there will be suspicions about whether the suspensions were justified.