After months of delays, the four active players targeted in the NFL’s performance-enhancing drug probe are expected to begin speaking with league investigators when Packers linebackers Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers have their interviews Wednesday in Green Bay.
The next big question is what exactly the NFL will consider the full cooperation it’s demanding from Matthews, Peppers, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison and free-agent linebacker Mike Neal for them to avoid banishment.
Because it’s almost certainly not as simple as showing up and, as some have suggested, giving the Marshawn Lynch treatment (i.e. “I’m just here so I won’t get fined”) the moment the line of questioning goes anywhere they don’t want it to.
Look at the initial disciplinary decision against New England Patriots star Tom Brady, whose refusal to produce electronic evidence (emails, text messages, etc.) and testimony that investigators concluded was not plausible and contradicted by other evidence was cited as “failure to cooperate fully and candidly,” contributing to a four-game suspension in the “Deflategate” matter.
In an Aug. 15 letter to the players’ union, NFL senior vice president of labor policy and league affairs Adolpho Birch wrote the players at issue here will be suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental – separate from any discipline, should the league later find they violated the PED policy – if they don’t speak to investigators by Thursday or “fail meaningfully to participate in or otherwise obstruct the interview.”
There’s no reason to think the NFL will allow players to dictate the scope of these interviews, as the union’s Aug. 18 response on Harrison’s behalf attempted to, saying he will make himself available “to answer NFL investigators’ questions about the only remarks about him” in the Al Jazeera America documentary The Dark Side that sparked the investigation back in December.
Harrison and the other players already answered those questions last month in sworn statements the league has rejected as “wholly devoid of any detail”, “cursory” and “untested”. (In Harrison’s case, he swore he has never met Charlie Sly, the former anti-aging clinic intern who made – and recanted before the documentary aired – the allegations to an undercover reporter; that he has never been supplied or ingested the substance Delta-2; and that he has never violated the NFL’s PED policy.)
You can bet investigators will ask whatever questions they feel are pertinent. If Harrison refuses to provide answers beyond those in the statement, is that failure to meaningfully participate/obstruction?
Since Sly claimed on camera he received a text message from Matthews, might investigators eventually ask for electronic evidence from Matthews?
Might investigators ask every player for “access to all records”, as the league says retired quarterback Peyton Manning provided in addition to interviews with him and his wife, who both were deemed “fully cooperative” in an NFL media release saying there was no credible evidence to support Sly’s accusations against him?
This is one reason the NFLPA issued a terse statement on the Manning verdict and had fought against the active players’ participation in this investigation for months: the fear it would become a fishing expedition, predicated on nothing more than one person’s secretly recorded statements. Only after the league threatened indefinite suspensions for non-cooperation did players acquiesce.
Maybe the league is merely enforcing its right to compel cooperation before closing the book, absent any new evidence. As Joe Lockhart, the NFL’s executive vice president of communications, told USA TODAY Sports a few weeks ago while the union continued stiff-arming requests for interviews: “A thorough review, and a perception of a thorough review, is in everyone’s interest.”
Still, it’d be foolish to assume that speaking with investigators automatically gets players off the hook. Even setting aside past cases, the strong language of Birch’s letter suggests there’s more to it.