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Players' union cites incentive program allowed by NFL in 1996

NEW ORLEANS -- The NFL Players Association filed papers in federal court pointing out that the NFL permitted a 1996 incentive program for big hits funded by then-Green Bay defensive lineman Reggie White.

In papers filed Thursday in U.S. District Court, the union questioned why NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell now should be able to suspend former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita for offering then-New Orleans teammates rewards for big plays during the 2009 season.

The filing cited media reports about White's "smash-for-cash" program that paid $500 for big plays, including big hits.

The reports, now nearly 16 years old, include players from other teams discussing similar pools climbing into the thousands of dollars. In one ESPN report, Troy Vincent, then a defensive back with the Philadelphia Eagles, discusses a similar player-funded incentive program run by Eagles players.

Vincent now works for the NFL as a vice president overseeing player engagement.

In the reports, an NFL spokesman is quoted as saying the incentive programs are permitted as long as players use their own money and the amounts players pledge aren't exorbitant.

NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Thursday night that the league would defer comment to its own forthcoming arguments in court.

The NFLPA seized upon the NFL's 1996 stance particularly as it related to Fujita, whom Goodell suspended for one game this season even though he said he couldn't verify that the linebacker participated in the bounty program the league says the Saints ran for three seasons, from 2009 to 2011. Goodell said Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, still was guilty of violating NFL rules by offering his own incentives for big plays and also, as a team leader, by failing to try to stop the cash-for-hits program overseen by then-Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The union said that while the NFL's player safety goals might have evolved since 1996, it is unfair to punish players for behavior it previously permitted without formally spelling out that such behavior no longer is allowed.

Fujita is one of four players suspended by Goodell in the NFL's bounty probe of the Saints. Saints linebacker Jon Vilma wass suspended for the season, Saints defensive end Will Smith for four games and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove for seven games. None of the suspensions currently are in effect because they all have been appealed within the framework of the NFL's labor agreement, and Goodell has set hearings for those appeals this Tuesday in New York.

Meanwhile, former Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman Jimmy Kennedy submitted a sworn declaration stating he "knew nothing of any alleged 'bounty' program" that the Saints had in place on quarterback Brett Favre when they faced the Vikings in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.

Kennedy's declaration states he only told teammates the Saints were hitting Vikings players "like there's money on the table," which was his way of urging teammates to match New Orleans' intensity. Kennedy said NFL investigator Joe Hummel called him to ask about a Saints bounty program, and he told Hummel he didn't know anything about it.

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

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