Browns’ Fujita among players suspended for bounties
CLEVELAND (AP) — Scott Fujita has fought for player safety as a member of the union’s executive committee. The NFL alleges the Browns’ linebacker paid into a pool that rewarded players for injuring opponents.
The outspoken Fujita was suspended three games without pay by commissioner Roger Goodell on Wednesday for his involvement in the New Orleans Saints “bounty” program, which rewarded players thousands of dollars for hard hits.
Fujita, who spent four seasons with New Orleans before signing as a free agent with Cleveland in 2010, was one of four players suspended as Goodell continued his crackdown on the rogue cash-for-hits system that has tainted the Saints’ rise to Super Bowl champions and gotten their coach Sean Payton suspended for the season.
Along with Fujita, New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended without pay for the entire 2012 season, defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for the first eight games, and Saints defensive end Will Smith was banned from the opening four games.
Fujita got off with the lightest penalty, but the 33-year-old will lose approximately $644,000 if he misses the three games. He is expected to appeal the ruling.
The NFL said Fujita “pledged a significant amount of money to the prohibited pay-for-performance/bounty pool during the 2009 NFL Playoffs.” The league said the pool paid large cash payoffs for “cart-offs” and “knockouts,” plays during which an opposing player was injured.
Fujita did not immediately respond to an email or phone call from the AP seeking comment. He is not taking part in the Browns’ “voluntary” offseason conditioning program and remains in California with his family. His wife, Jaclyn, recently gave birth to the couple’s third daughter.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur said the team will abide by Goodell’s ruling.
“We will respect the Commissioner’s decision,” Shurmur said in a statement. “Scott is a valued member of the Cleveland Browns, and we look forward to his participation in our offseason program and training camp.”
According to the league, Hargrove, who signed as a free agent with Green Bay in March “actively obstructed the league’s 2010 investigation into the program by being untruthful to investigators.” The league said evidence showed Hargrove told a player on another team that Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre was the target of a large bounty during the NFC championship in 2010.
A Packers spokesman said the team will not comment on Hargrove’s suspension.
Fujita and Hargrove are allowed to participate in their team’s offseason programs and can play in exhibition games before their suspensions start.
Fujita’s involvement in the Saints’ illegal bounty program — the league called it a “leadership role” — would seem to contradict many of his actions away from the field.
Fujita was deeply involved in negotiations for the NFLPA for a new collective bargaining agreement and has worked diligently to raise awareness for player safety.
Before last year’s labor lockout, Fujita questioned the league’s desire to expand to an 18-game schedule, saying it would only lead to further injuries.
“They are asking you to play more games and put yourself at more risk,” he said, “and they are also asking us to take a pay cut.”
Fujita signed a three-year, $14 million contract with the Browns on May 7, 2010. It didn’t take him long to have an impact on the team. He was elected a team captain in his first season and started nine straight games before injuring his knee, undergoing surgery and going on injured reserve.
Last season, Fujita started 10 games — he missed one with a concussion — before breaking his right hand in two places on Nov. 27 against Cincinnati. Fujita played most of the game after injuring his hand, not realizing how badly he was hurt. He eventually had surgery.
If Fujita is unavailable to start the season, the Browns are better prepared to play without him than a year ago.
When Fujita was injured in December, Chris Gocong shifted over to the strongside position for the five games and played well. Kaluka Maiava showed promise while taking over for Gocong and the Browns could use that formation again if Fujita is out.
Also, the Browns selected Nevada’s Michael-James Johnson in last week’s draft. He can play inside or outside linebacker and will likely be given a chance to win a starting job. The team added Texas linebacker Emmanuel Acho in the sixth round.
The Packers signed Hargrove to bolster a pass rush that hasn’t been the same since Cullen Jenkins left as a free agent last year. Hargrove had three sacks in 15 games for Seattle last season and appeared to have his career on the rebound after a substance abuse problem led to him being suspended for one year in 2008.