Fujita, suspended for three games by the league for allegedly contributing ”a significant amount” of money to a pay-for-hits pool while he played for the Saints, maintained his innocence on Tuesday in his first public comments since the disturbing scandal broke.
”That is not true,” he said.
The 10-year veteran has appealed the penalty handed down by commissioner Roger Goodell. Fujita, however, said he’s more determined to clear his name and protect his image than making sure he’s in Cleveland’s starting lineup for the season opener on Sept. 9.
”Listen,” he said, his voice rising. ”My reputation is a lot more valuable to me than three game checks [about $644,000]. My track record speaks for itself.”
Fujita was one of four players reprimanded by the league following its investigation into the Saints’ bounty program, which was run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-11. New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire season, Green Bay defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove was suspended eight games and Saints defensive end Will Smith for four.
Following the Browns’ first practice of organized team activities (OTAs), Fujita, who played in New Orleans from 2006-09, spent more than 10 minutes answering questions about the bounty scandal, which has rocked the league and indelibly stained the Saints.
Fujita said the claims against him have hurt personally and that he’s now pitted in a battle of his word against the league’s.
”That’s the reality of the situation that we’re in, and unfortunately for a lot of us, we’re on public trial and that’s unfortunate,” said Fujita, who serves as an executive committee member for the NFL Players Association. ”But I’m just going to stick with my previous statements, and there will come a time when I’ll be ready to share everything, but now is not the time.”
When he was suspended, Fujita released a statement professing he did nothing wrong. He referred to the statement several times during his interview session, which began with him stepping behind a podium surrounded by cameras and microphones and saying, ”fire away.”
Fujita kept his composure throughout. He only became emotional when he described learning about the investigation while he was in the hospital with his wife as she was giving birth to the couple’s third daughter. Fujita said news of the league’s probe blindsided him.
”I was never even alerted about it,” he said. ”I had a problem with that. That was at a time when I was supposed to be with my family, spending time with my newborn daughter so I was disappointed in that. Since that time, again, the idea of being on a public trial is a difficult situation to be in. It’s our word against theirs and that’s frustrating, but the reality is that I know what actually happened and that’s why I can stand by those statements.”
Fujita would not say if he plans litigation against the league. Vilma recently filed a defamation lawsuit Goodell, claiming the commissioner made false statements that tarnished his reputation.
Fujita paused when he was asked if he had evidence that would clear his name.
”It’s just my word against theirs and it’s a tough situation to be in,” he said. ”Can I go to bed at night and look at myself in the mirror and know what actually happened? Yeah. But it’s an uphill battle. Can I go toe to toe with the media and all that kind of stuff? It’s a challenging prospect.”
Fujita said the next step in his appeal is a hearing on May 30 in Philadelphia. He said the league has not shown him any of the evidence it says it has against him. As for Goodell, Fujita said he’s sympathetic to the difficulties he has in upholding the league’s rules.
”It’s a challenging position he’s in and I’m sensitive to that,” Fujita said. ”But I think there’s also a better way to go about doing things.”
The audiotape of Williams telling players to target areas to injure San Francisco players in this year’s playoffs may appear to be disturbing and could be used as evidence, Fujita said. But he said it’s not out of the norm in football.
”We’ve all been in locker rooms where inappropriate things are said, that are over the top and sound highly inappropriate to the rest of the world,” he said. ”But I’ve been in some locker rooms through high school, college and the league, it sounds crazy, but players for the most part just laugh it off and, ‘Hey, that guy’s just being crazy.’ The tape itself, it wasn’t evidence of anything, other than a coach saying some inappropriate things.”
Fujita has been a staunch advocate for player safety, and his supposed involvement in the bounty program, would seem to cast him as a hypocrite. The 33-year-old, who is socially active and a community leader everywhere he’s played, was asked if the assertion that he’s a contradictory figure is one of the things that bothers him most.
”Absolutely. For me, moving forward, I have a master’s degree in education. One of my goals is when I’m done playing, I want to go back and I want to teach. All right?” he said, smacking his hand on the podium. ”If this kind of thing prevents me from being able to get hired, I’m not OK with that.”
Fujita remains optimistic his appeal will be overturned. He’s looking forward to being able to focus his energies on playing football and ”having the best season of my career.”
He has been given no date by the league when his case will be resolved.
”Generally you hope things like this will be expedited,” he said. ”I’m waiting on it. I’ve got a lot of teammates and coaches who are depending on me and depending on that information. Hopefully it gets resolved sooner rather than later. I can’t tell you how much I would love to be able to just move past this.”