Browns LB Scott Fujita cleared of conduct detrimental to the league, Bountygate suspensions vacated

Ron Schwane-US PRESSWIRE

It's over.

The New Orleans Saints bounty scandal more popularly referred to as Bountygate has finally come to its conclusion.

All disciplinary action taken against Anthony Hargrove, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma was rescinded in the decision announced yesterday. Despite that, three of the four players were found to have engaged in "conduct detrimental" to the NFL. One of them was not.

Scott Fujita was cleared of the same charge.

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed arbitrator for the case by current Commissioner Roger Goodell, has vacated all of the league's imposed suspensions and fines on the four players involved in the bounty case in a final decision on the long-running appeal, which you can read in its entirety here.

I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players. I conclude that Hargrove, Smith and Vilma -- but not Fujita -- engaged in "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football." However, for the reasons set forth in this decision, I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players.

Although I vacate all suspensions, I fully considered but ultimately rejected reducing the suspensions to fines of varying degrees for Hargrove, Smith and Vilma. My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However, as explained in my discussion below, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.

Fujita, of course, has maintained his innocence throughout this whole ordeal. Back in May, just a week after the suspensions were first handed down by Goodell, Fujita spoke out against the allegations.

"I disagree wholeheartedly with the discipline imposed. I've yet to hear the specifics of any allegation against me, nor have I seen any evidence that supports what the NFL alleges. I look forward to the opportunity to confront what evidence they claim to have in the appropriate forum. I have never contributed money to any so-called 'bounty' pool, and any statements to the contrary are false. To say I'm disappointed with the League would be a huge understatement."

Now he appears to be vindicated.

According to the information provided in the announcement of the decision, here's what we know about Fujita's case and is not in dispute by either side:

  • Fujita admitted to offering money to teammates for big plays such as sacks and interceptions.
  • Fujita admitted to being aware of the bounty program.
  • Fujita did not participate in the bounty program including payouts for cart-offs and knockouts.

The NFL contended that "it is of no importance that he claims never to have offered money for hits on opponents such as cart-offs or knockouts." Rather, as a "respected leader of the Saints' defense and role model for other players," the violations were enough to warrant the one game suspension.

Tagliabue disagreed.

"I find the NFL's contentions lacking in merit," he said in the final decision.

Tagliabue cited two separate instances from 2007 in which the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots were fined for pay-for-performance pools. Specifically, the league's discipline letter to the Patriots stated that the NFL found a number of players were in violation of the same rule as Fujita, yet no player was disciplined. Instead, the clubs were fined $25,000 or less.

Accordingly, the NFL's decision to suspend a player here for participating in a program for which the League typically fines a club certainly raises significant issues regarding inconsistent treatment between players and teams.

Given that it is undisputed that Fujita did not participate in the Program including cartoffs and knockouts, and that his participation in a "non-injury" pay-for-performance pool is typically subject only to club discipline, I find that his actions here were not conduct detrimental and vacate his suspension.

Fujita has yet to respond publicly about yesterday's decision. A quick glance at his Twitter feed, however, shows the overwhelming amount of support he's receiving from Browns teammates and the broader NFL community alike.

Regardless of the recent decision, Fujita's future with the Cleveland Browns is hardly certain. The 33-year-old linebacker has been on injured-reserve since Oct. 27 after suffering what was originally thought to be a shoulder injury against the New York Giants in Week 5, which was later found to be a neck issue.

He's set to be an unrestricted free agent at the conclusion of this season.

So, how do you feel about Fujita's exoneration? How do you feel about Fujita's future with the Browns or the just under three years he's spent in Cleveland already? Are you just glad to hear Bountygate is finally over?

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