Thunder GM kills rumors of Van Gundy, Jackson


Thunder GM kills rumors of Van Gundy, Jackson

From Comcast SportsNet
NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, a union leader with a record of criticizing the NFL's player-safety record, sees elements of a "smear campaign" in a bounty investigation that has sullied his reputation. Some NFL players agree, and question whether Fujita's three-game suspension has something to do with retribution. "I'm not saying the NFL is intentionally lying," Fujita said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I've been willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they may have just been working with the information they've been given, even though much of that information was inaccurate and lacked credibility. "It's their cavalier interpretation of everything that's been way off. They clearly proceeded with a public smear campaign with very little regard for the truth." NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell could rule on the appeals of Fujita and the other players suspended because of their roles in the bounty program as early as Monday. Saints linebacker Scott Shanle finds it hard to ignore the symmetry of the NFL portraying Fujita as a hypocrite on player-safety matters after Fujita had done the same thing to the league. "When you look at Scott, who was here for one season (of the three spanned by the bounty probe), for him to get three games, I just felt like there had to be more of a personal issue with that," Shanle said. "When you look at how outspoken he is and a lot of the issues he tries to address, it probably doesn't sit well with the league." NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said the NFL stands by its finding that Fujita gave "more than token amounts" of money to a pool that also rewarded injury-producing hits called "cart-offs" and "knockouts." "The process gave all of the players every opportunity to raise arguments and provide any mitigating information," Aiello said. "Scott Fujita unfortunately chose not to avail himself of the process. Nothing that he has asserted in his various public statements undermines the findings of the investigation." Fujita, who now plays for Cleveland, was one of four current or former Saints suspended in the bounty probe. Two of them, Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, still play for New Orleans. The other, Green Bay defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, left New Orleans after 2010, while Fujita left after 2009, the first season covered by the investigation. In 2010, Fujita became a member of the NFLPA executive committee, and has since echoed comments by Congresswoman Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) comparing the NFL's 2009 position on concussions' links to brain disease to the way the tobacco industry denied knowledge that smoking caused cancer. Fujita argued Goodell undermined his own credibility on player-safety matters when he pushed for an 18-game regular season. He called for the NFL to employ independent neurological consultants after Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was knocked out of a game, but allowed to return, despite later being diagnosed with a concussion. Browns players say Fujita challenged Goodell's answers to a range of questions including how a lockout would affect players' health coverage when the commissioner visited the team in 2010. "Scott wasn't scared to ask the tough questions that some of us wouldn't or some of us didn't even know to ask," Browns tight end Benjamin Watson said. "Scott wanted to make sure the commissioner owned up to all that stuff and ... you could tell that Mr. Goodell wasn't comfortable answering some of those questions." Former Browns linebacker Eric Barton added, "Most people in the room were like, this guy (the commissioner) is full of it and Scott just called him out, and it was almost like, Oh, Scott, you're going to be in trouble.'" After seeing evidence the NFL presented against him in last week's appeal hearing on the four players' suspensions, Fujita has more questions: -- Why has the NFL linked him to bounties in its public statements, while its disciplinary letter announcing his suspension acknowledges there is no evidence he "pledged money toward a specific bounty" on a particular player? -- Why does that same letter state he was a member of the Saints in the 2010 season, when he was with Cleveland? And what does that say about the quality of the investigation? -- If the investigation was going on for parts of three years, why did no one contact him before the league's first report in March? -- Why did Goodell twice call his personal phone after union attorneys notified the NFL they were representing Fujita, meaning Goodell was not supposed to call him without an NFLPA attorney on the line? Aiello responded that while the NFL never accused Fujita of targeting a specific opponent, his discipline letter clearly stated "that he contributed a significant sum to the general pool that included payments for nonspecific bounties in the form of cart-offs' and knockouts.'" Fujita was not contacted about the probe earlier, Aiello said, because the league was unable to identify specific players and their roles in the program until late in 2011. "Every individual that was eventually disciplined was invited to speak to our office prior to any decision on discipline," Aiello said. "None of the players, including Mr. Fujita, agreed to be interviewed during the process." Aiello added that Goodell's calls to Fujita were in response to calls Fujita had placed to Goodell, but the NFLPA said Goodell should not have been making personal calls to players facing punishment at that point. "It's inappropriate. It is completely outside legal conduct rules," NFLPA lawyer Heather McPhee said. "You cannot directly contact a represented party when you know a party's represented and it's especially odd in this case when Roger purports to be the judge. Picture a judge getting on the phone with a defendant or a suspect." After the second call, McPhee emailed NFL counsel Jeff Pash and Goodell, saying Fujita would be happy to talk with Goodell with counsel present, but there was no further communication, and Fujita learned days later he'd been suspended. Fujita said his only chance to speak with Goodell directly came in early March after the release of the initial bounty report, which did not identify players, although Fujita's name had been leaked. Fujita said he called Goodell to explain locker room culture as it relates to tough talk and informal performance incentives, and how it could be misconstrued. He said Goodell told him then that "he would have no problem coming down hard on Saints coaches, but that when it comes to players, he's not quite sure what he's got." Fujita acknowledges he offered teammates cash for big plays, mainly because "that's the way it was done when I was a young player and I kind of looked at that as paying it forward." But Fujita contends he never contributed to team-organized pools, instead paying pledges directly to teammates. The NFL's current collective bargaining agreement applies only to pools organized by team officials, like the one former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has apologized for running. According to a transcript AP obtained from the appeal hearing, NFL outside counsel Mary Jo White described an unnamed coach and another witness saying Fujita pledged unspecified sums of cash for "big plays" during the 2009-10 playoffs. The NFL also presented printed reproductions of handwritten notes, which White said show Fujita pledging 1,000 to a pool for sacks and forced fumbles during the regular season, and 2,000 during the playoffs to a "general pool," which she said in part paid for injury-inducing plays. The note indicated safety Roman Harper, who was not punished, pledged 5,000 to the general pool, and that assistant head coach Joe Vitt pledged 5,000 to knock then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC title game. Hoping to protect those who helped their investigation, the NFL did not present the original notes or identify who wrote them. "We don't know who wrote the note. We haven't seen original, and the fact that Joe Vitt's name is on it proves how bogus it is," Fujita said. "No way he ever contributed not even 100 for anything. It's not his style." Vitt has said the part of the document showing his pledge is false, which he said raises questions about all of the evidence. However the bounty saga winds up, Fujita said he has no regrets about his aggressive tactics as a union leader. "I've had a few concussions myself. I have a dear friend (former Saints player Steve Gleason) who has ALS. I have a friend and former mentor (Lew Bush) who died earlier this year. Then there was the tragic death of someone I've admired for so long, Junior Seau," Fujita said. "I can't say for sure that all of these things happened because of football, but I've seen enough to have some concerns. I was elected to fight for these men, so in no way do I regret that."

Toppling mighty Buckeyes, James Franklin finally gets his big win at Penn State


Toppling mighty Buckeyes, James Franklin finally gets his big win at Penn State

James Franklin finally has himself a win over a ranked opponent.

And what a win it was.

Franklin hadn’t taken down any team with a No. 1 through 25 in front of its name since he arrived at Penn State ahead of the 2014 season. But wins don’t get much bigger — and opponents don’t get much better — than the Nittany Lions’ stunning upset of the second-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes on Saturday night in Happy Valley.

Franklin was hired to take Penn State back to the top of the college football mountain, and because college football fans and observers are impatient, he hasn’t appeared to make much progress toward that goal in his two and a half seasons at the helm. The first two campaigns finished in 7-6 records, and that kind of mediocrity doesn’t really fly at Penn State, even if Franklin is still doing the work of dragging the program out of the shadow of the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

In the preseason, Franklin looked at this season as one where the effects of that scandal start to get shed a little bit. He boasted about decisions made to redshirt players over the past two seasons, despite the Lions needing the depth, beginning to pay off.

When Penn State lost to Pitt in a game that was very entertaining but saw the Lions’ defense absolutely gashed and then to Michigan by a 39-point margin, it looked like the middle level was all Franklin would be able to deliver for yet another season. Those losses even spurred hot-seat talk. Remember the point about college football fans and observers being impatient?

But Saturday, questions about Franklin’s job status were deemed null and void.

You can look at the way the Lions won the game: returning a blocked field goal attempt 60 yards for a game-winning touchdown in the game’s final five minutes and wonder if this wasn’t more a product of college football magic than it was a product of Penn State turning some kind of corner. But the Lions did play very well, particularly on the defensive side of the ball, on Saturday night. Despite some good yardage totals for Ohio State, Penn State’s defense persistently flustered Heisman candidate J.T. Barrett and sacked him six times, including on the Buckeyes’ final two offensive plays.

Ohio State had huge advantages in most offensive categories. A small sample: Barrett completed 20 more passes than Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, and the Buckeyes were 10-for-24 on third and fourth down while the Lions were just 2-for-14.

But special teams are special for a reason, right? Even before the wild play that ended in the game-winning touchdown, Penn State blocked an Ohio State punt that turned into three points. Ten points off blocked kicks? That’ll do.

Again, does all this mean that the Lions are finding their footing under Franklin and resuming their ascent back to the top of the Big Ten?

The fairer question might be: Was that even possible in the first place?

Taking nothing away from Franklin, he was handed the mighty difficult task of getting back to competing for conference and national championships while playing in a division loaded with some of the best programs in college football. When he arrived ahead of the 2014 season, it was Ohio State and Michigan State slugging it out for those titles on an annual basis. Then Jim Harbaugh showed up in Ann Arbor and flipped the Wolverines back into title contenders overnight.

Whether the Sandusky scandal had a crippling effect on this program or not, the sheer quality of those three annual opponents made Franklin’s task look almost impossible.

But now one of those Goliaths has been slain. Cry not for the Buckeyes, their title hopes are still very much alive after suffering just their first defeat of the season. Instead, look at this as the next step for Franklin, the next step toward where he wants Penn State to be. Look at this as him getting the monkey of not beating a ranked team off his back. You want a win over a ranked team? How’s the No. 2 team in the country sound?

And while the Lions aren't suddenly anyone's trendy pick to make a surprise run to the national championship, take a look at the Big Ten standings. Penn State's 3-1 conference record places it second in the East Division, behind only undefeated Michigan. Of the five teams with 3-1 or better marks in the league, three were ranked in the top 10 coming into this past weekend. Penn State has the same overall record as the Wisconsin Badgers, a top-10 team which still has hopes of reaching the College Football Playoff. So pretty good company to be in for the Lions.

Penn State might not be challenging for the conference championship this season or in the next one, but this is one big thing checked off Franklin’s to-do list.

Buckeyes stunned in Happy Valley, but myriad title hopes still alive


Buckeyes stunned in Happy Valley, but myriad title hopes still alive

Ohio State is no longer undefeated, and that’s a real bummer for the Buckeyes.

But the thing is, it’s true what Urban Meyer says: His team’s goals are all still in front of it.

“Every goal is still alive,” Meyer said after Saturday's game. “We’re just not a great team right now. We’ve got to regroup and get guys healthy and get back and keep swinging.

“I talked to the team, and then Raekwon McMillan and some of the other leaders talked to the team. Let’s go, time to get to work.”

The Buckeyes lost in shocking fashion Saturday night, upended by Penn State when the Nittany Lions returned a blocked field goal try 60 yards for a touchdown.

At first glance, you’d think this flips the Big Ten on its head, and it is true that Ohio State can no longer be considered the favorite for the crowns it chases: the Big Ten East Division title, the Big Ten title and the national title. The favorite for those first two championships, at least, is now Michigan, which sits at 7-0, having dominated all but one opponent this season, while Ohio State dropped to 6-1 on Saturday night.

But until the Buckeyes suffer defeat No. 2, there’s really nothing stopping them from competing for and winning all those titles.

There are currently seven undefeated teams hailing from Power Five conferences: Alabama, Clemson, Michigan, Nebraska, Washington, Baylor and West Virginia. That’s Ohio State’s competition for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Plenty will happen between now and when the selection committee picks the sport’s final four, meaning that list will be trimmed, if not completely emptied.

But the main point here is that as long as the Buckeyes take care of the rest of their business prior to the regular season’s final week — easier said than done, of course, with Nebraska still remaining on the schedule — things will come down to The Game, just as it they were going to before Saturday’s loss in Pennsylvania. If Ohio State enters its end-of-season date with rival Michigan with one loss and the Wolverines boast a spotless record, a win in The Game will still send the Buckeyes to Indy and could make all the difference in sending them to the Playoff.

Now, of course there’s no more room for error. Be it Nebraska or some other upset-minded opponent, Ohio State cannot trip up one more time, or its destiny will be out of its control.

And no longer do the Buckeyes look like the favorite for The Game. They might've prior to Saturday, and certainly last season's result is still in our minds. But the Wolverines are now not just equals with the Buckeyes, they're the favorites.

But as things stand, a one-loss group of Buckeyes with wins over Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan and whichever team comes out of the West Division in the Big Ten title game will most definitely warrant a spot in the Playoff field.

As for Saturday? A heck of a college football game and a heck of a moment for Penn State. But Ohio State is still on pretty much the same path it was on before.