I’ll be honest, I was shocked that former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the suspensions of four former and current New Orleans Saints players. The players must have felt the same way, because when it was announced last month by current commissioner Roger Goodell that Tagliabue would hear their appeal, they fought to have him to recuse himself.
Lucky for them he didn’t.
Tagliabue did uphold the major points of Goodell’s investigation. That a bounty program in fact did exist, that LB Jonathan Vilma, DE Anthony Hargrove and DE Will Smith engaged in conduct detrimental to the league (former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita was exonerated) and that Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty on Brett Favre before the 2009 NFC Championship game.
But unlike Goodell, Tagliabue put the onus on the Saints organization, citing “broad organizational misconduct” and that the team’s coaches and managers, “led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation.”
The league would have also set a precedent, not previously fining or suspending players for activities the Saints players participated in. Because members of the organization “contaminated” the investigation, Tagliabue surmised that Goodell’s original suspensions were too severe.
He also pointed to similar pay-for-performance systems involving the Green Bay Packers in 2007 and New England Patriots in 2008 where only the teams, not the players themselves, were punished (small fines and no suspensions in either case).
Tagliabue’s decision is a clear sign that he felt Goodell went too far when disciplining the players. He noted, “Rightly or wrongly, a sharp change in sanctions or discipline can often be seen as arbitrary and as an impediment rather than an instrument of change. That is what we see on the record here.”
This is all cold comfort to a Saints team that started the season 0-4 and is now 5-8. Quarterback Drew Brees tweeted Tuesday, “Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, some things can never be taken back.”
Now that it has been decided (once and for all it seems) that the initial penalties were too harsh, did Goodell overreach to the point that its ultimately destroyed the 2012 season for the Saints? Was the investigation another opportunity for the league to promote its ever-changing position on player safety (in the wake of an onslaught of lawsuits from former players)?
Those questions are pure speculation. They may make us raise our eyebrows, but they’re merely subject to opinion. What is troubling however are statements made by Goodell and Tagliabue that are wildly different.
When the league released its findings from the initial investigation back in March, Goodell said –
“It is our responsibility to protect player safety and the integrity of our game, and this type of conduct will not be tolerated. We have made significant progress in changing the culture with respect to player safety and we are not going to relent. We have more work to do and we will do it.”
A little over 9 months later, Tagliabue questioned whether players even have a basic understanding of the league’s pay-for-performance rules.
“... No matter what the League rules and policies are or have been, if many teams in the League allow pay-for-performance programs to operate in the locker room, as seems to be the case, and, in the main, the League has tolerated this behavior without punishment of players, then many players may not have a clear understanding that such behavior is prohibited or where the lines are between permissible and impermissible conduct.”
What’s most startling is that Tagliabue wrote that players may not understand those rules and policies because the league “has tolerated this behavior without punishment of players.”
Even though the NFL has a zero tolerance policy when it comes to player safety, that policy is useless if the league can’t even enforce coherent guidelines and procedures.
While the Saints were cast as villains, the NFL sought to play the hero, valiantly protecting the sanctity of the sport. What has resulted however is that the rules are so blurred and unenforceable that it may be impossible, until it is earnestly confronted, to distinguish what is right and what is wrong.
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