By Dan Scifo
LATROBE, Pa. — Pittsburgh Steelers’ linebacker James Harrison doesn’t want to face a suspension. He is also not interested in talking to NFL representatives, either.
The NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and league affairs, Adolpho Birch, sent a letter Monday to the NFL Players Association detailing a plan to indefinitely suspend Harrison, Clay Matthews, Julius Peppers and Mike Neal if they don’t speak with the league by Aug. 25 as part of its investigation into an alleged link to performance-enhancing drugs.
The players’ punishment would end at the discretion of Commissioner Roger Goodell once interviews are completed, according to the letter obtained by The Associated Press.
Harrison said he isn’t interested.
“I’m not going to answer questions for every little thing that some Tom, Dick and Harry comes up with,” Harrison said. “If that’s the case, somebody can come out and say that James Harrison is a pedophile. (Are) they going to suspend me and put me in an investigation for being a pedophile just because somebody said it?”
Harrison said he doesn’t want to be suspended, but he is prepared to take the situation as far as New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady, who fought his four-game “Deflategate” suspension for 18 months — nearly to the U.S. Supreme Court — before deciding to no longer proceed with the legal process. His suspension begins next month.
“When it comes down to it, I want to play, but it’s certain rules and things they need to go through that they didn’t even go through just to start an investigation,” Harrison said at training camp.
Harrison said in June he would only agree to an interview if it were at his home and Goodell was present. He extended his invitation again on Tuesday.
“Like I said before, I don’t have a problem with doing an interview,” Harrison said. “Come to my house. Bring Roger with you.”
Harrison said he would “lean in the direction” of speaking with the league if the Steelers suggest an interview because he doesn’t want to let his teammates and the organization down.
“I’ll have to deal with that when the time comes,” Harrison said.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he is staying out of it.
“This has nothing to do with us,” Tomlin said. “This is between him and the (NFLPA) and the league. I assume that he is going to do what he needs to do.”
Goodell’s power to punish players has been an increasingly difficult issue between the NFL and the union in recent years, highlighted by the Brady case and that of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson , who fought his suspension over allegations of child abuse.
Harrison, a 14-year veteran, is a longtime leader of the Steelers. Matthews and Peppers are key players for Green Bay’s defense, and Neal is currently a free agent who spent the past six seasons with the Packers.
Matthews and Peppers did not talk with reporters on Tuesday. Green Bay general manager Ted Thompson said the Packers would support the players, but declined to discuss the case.
“Everybody in the world’s going to be talking about it, but I’m not going to have anything to say about it, the Packers will not have anything to say about it until it gets resolved,” Thompson said. “You’d rather have those players than not. I’m not saying that we wouldn’t miss ‘em” if they are not able to play.
The NFL first notified the four players on Jan. 11 about the investigation into a report by Al-Jazeera including allegations made by Charlie Sly, who worked as an intern at an anti-aging clinic, about the use of PEDs by several athletes, including the four linebackers. Sly later recanted his claims. Retired quarterback Peyton Manning was also cited in the report, but the NFL cleared him after a separate investigation in which the Broncos star granted interviews and provided all records sought by league investigators.
Birch, in his letter, said the league has made “at least seven attempts” to arrange interviews with the linebackers. The players have refused to be interviewed without being presented with what they’ve called credible evidence. Affidavits were sent by the NFLPA on behalf of the players, but Birch dismissed each as statements “wholly devoid of any detail.”
Harrison said in his statement, sent to Birch on July 25 by the NFLPA, that he never met nor communicated with the source of the Al Jazeera report and has never violated the NFL’s policy on performance-enhancing substances.
“Neither the CBA nor the policy state that a player must agree to an in-person interview based upon random, baseless verbal remarks or face discipline for a failure to cooperate with a league investigation,” union attorney Heather McPhee wrote then on Harrison’s behalf.
Birch cited Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement in noting the discipline that can come for noncooperation or obstruction.
“We cannot accept your unilateral assertion that the cursory, untested statements you have submitted satisfy the players’ obligation,” Birch wrote.
Harrison said Tuesday that he didn’t get a chance to read the letter sent to him by the league and that he is following the advice of union attorneys.
“I’ll do what I have to do, they’ll do what they have to do and we’ll make that decision when the time comes,” Harrison said. “I’m just doing what I’m advised to do. It’s the right thing to do.”