Among sports columnists, Mike Freeman of CBS Sports has been one of the Saints’ harshest critics in the wake of the bounty scandal. He even went so far as to call Jonathan Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against Roger Goodell “arrogant” in a column he wrote a few days ago.
But now, it seems Freeman is slowly changing his tune, after having listened to what a few members of the New Orleans Saints had to say to him about the so-called “Bountygate” controversy.
Speaking under anonymity for fear of retribution from the league, the Saints who spoke with Freeman made a series of claims. The most explosive claim that multiple players alleged to Freeman is that they have seen the disciplinary letters sent from the league office to the coaches who were involved in the scandal, namely head coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, now-interim head coach Joe Vitt, and general manager Mickey Loomis. The letters, the players claimed, essentially told the four coaches that if they took their lumps as far as their suspensions went, they would be allowed to return to work on an accelerated timetable. This smacks of, for lack of a better term, blackmail.
Another powerful charge the players made is that the NFL didn’t possess any real evidence of a pay-to-injure program. The players told Freeman that even the scant evidence the league claimed to have – such as Anthony Hargrove’s written declaration – was greatly embellished. At least one source informed Freeman that there was, in fact, something unseemly going on in the Saints locker room, but that it was a gross mischaracterization to call it a “bounty” system. The players opined that individual players were targeted by Goodell because of Gregg Williams’ ugly speech to the defense prior to the NFC divisional playoff game against San Francisco.
The players also maintained that because of the specter of lawsuits present and future, Roger Goodell had to come down extra hard on the Saints in order to make an example of them for liability and perception reasons and also to try to eradicate off-the-books payments throughout the NFL. The players who spoke with Freeman felt they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and that their whole team was being railroaded.
Freeman points out in his article that the NFL has denied telling the Saints coaches they could come back to work before their suspensions were up, but that the NFL didn’t respond to other claims the Saints made to Freeman.