With as much purpose as any tackle he’s ever made, Scott Fujita delivered a shot to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Angered by Goodell’s handling of the New Orleans Saints’ bounties scandal, Fujita accused the commissioner of misusing his power, questioned his record on player safety, and the Browns linebacker vowed to keep fighting to clear his name.
“The commissioner says he is disappointed in me,” Fujita said. “The truth is, I’m disappointed in him.”
One day after Goodell reduced his three-game suspension to one for alleged involvement in the Saints’ pay-for-hits program and ruled on the penalties for three other players, Fujita took on the commissioner in a strongly worded statement.
Fujita charged Goodell with “abuse of power” and expressed his displeasure with the way his suspension was lessened. On Tuesday, Goodell sent Fujita a letter in which he chastised the 10-year veteran and member of the NFL Players Association’s executive committee for not doing more to stop his former teammates in New Orleans from taking part in the “bounty” program.
Goodell wrote to Fujita that he was “surprised and disappointed by the fact that you, a former defensive captain and a passionate advocate for player safety, ignored such a program and permitted it to continue. … . If you had spoken up, perhaps other players would have refused to participate and the consequences with which we are now dealing could have been avoided.”
Fujita was angered by the “condescending tone” in Goodell’s letter — and most of its content.
“For him to come out and say he was disappointed in me for not standing up to my coach,” Fujita said after practice Wednesday. “I haven’t had someone tell me they were disappointed in me since I was 12 years old, and that was my father.”
Fujita was pleased Goodell all but exonerated him from any involvement in the Saints’ mess, but was incensed the commissioner felt it necessary to chastise him for not stepping in and trying to stop the rogue program.
“I thought it was uncalled for and inappropriate,” Fujita said.
Fujita will appeal his one-game suspension and intends to play Sunday when the winless Browns (0-5) host the Cincinnati Bengals.
Fujita has maintained his innocence in the scandal since it first broke in March. Seven months later, Fujita hasn’t changed his stance and felt a recent Sept. 28 meeting with Goodell was “respectful and productive,” which is why he’s puzzled the commissioner would come down so hard.
“I went in and no punches were thrown,” Fujita said of meeting Goodell in New York. “Everybody was kind. So, yeah, I was a little bit taken aback by it. It didn’t have to go there at all. It just felt like one more personal jab.”
After reading Goodell’s letter, Fujita said he began preparing a statement to rebuke the commissioner. Fujita’s wife, Jaclyn, urged him to “cool down and sleep on it” before he sent something he would regret. For Fujita, Goodell’s implication that he was hypocritical about player safety hurt most.
“For him to speak to me as if I’m cavalier about player health and safety, that’s when I said enough is enough,” Fujita said.
The way Fujita sees it, Goodell overstepped his boundaries.
“It’s just a power-run-amok situation,” he said. “Obviously, the scope of the conduct-detrimental powers that have been afforded him are broad, but there has been clear abuse of power that has been afforded to him.”
In his statement, Fujita said Goodell’s new ruling “seems like an extremely desperate attempt to punish me. I also think it sets a dangerous precedent when players can be disciplined for not challenging the behavior of their superiors. This is an absolute abuse of the power that’s been afforded to the Commissioner.”
Fujita said if the wording in Goodell’s letter had not been so offensive he may have accepted the lesser suspension without a fight.
On Tuesday, Goodell upheld the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith and reduced penalties for Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.
Vilma will sit out the entire season and Smith’s punishment stands at four games. Hargrove, a free agent defensive lineman, will face a two-game suspension once he signs with a team. He originally was hit with eight games, but that was reduced to seven with five games already served.
The players were implicated in what the NFL said was a bounty pool run by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and paid improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents. The players have acknowledged a pool but denied they intended to injure anyone.
Fujita insists the bounty program never existed.
Goodell’s new ruling comes about a month after an appeals panel created by the NFL’s labor agreement vacated the original suspensions on technical grounds during Week 1 of the regular season. The panel informed Goodell he needed to clarify the reasons for the punishment.
Fujita feels a personal connection to the player safety issue. He was at the bargaining table for the players during contract talks when they successfully fought for changes. Fujita’s close friend and former Saints teammate Steve Gleason is afflicted with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, an incurable disease that medical studies say could be lined to head injuries.
Fujita knows his fight’s not over. And he’s not worried about any repercussions for his criticism of Goodell.
“This is how I feel about things,” he said with a shrug. “I’ve been very clear about it since back in March, so I don’t think it could get any worse.”