FORT LAUDERDALE, FL - FEBRUARY 05: Commissioner of the NFL Roger Goodell speaks to members of the media during the NFL Commissioner Press Conference held at the Greater Ft. Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center as part of media week for Super Bowl XLIV on February 5, 2010 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
King Solomon solved a thorny legal question with a decision to split a baby in half. It was the stuff of Biblical legend. Retired NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue split the baby today by giving all sides in the New Orleans Saints Bountygate scandal a face-saving way to claim a win.
Tagliabue deserves a paragraph when they re-edit Scripture.
Current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL PA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith dumped a hot potato in Tagliabue's lap. For the NFL, it was how to exit gracefully Goodell's hard line on the four players named in the scandal while reaffirming the league's power to regulate the game.
For the Players' Association, it was how to defend members in a disciplinary process that it does not like, but agreed to accept in the labor agreement.
For the Saints players, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, it was how to escape financial penalty for too eagerly joining the team's prohibited incentive for aggressive play and then stonewalling the league's investigation.
1. reaffirmed the commissioner's authority to act,
2. bullet-proofed the NFL court position by providing the players due process in the appeal,
3. confirmed that the league's evidence was enough to make the case against the players,
4. gave players an escape from punishment by pointing fingers at the Saints organization.
Don't buy it the hype
While all sides claim the win, nothing changed in the union's effort to check Goodell's power. Now, a paper trail finds the players are guilty of the charges. Most fans will never read it, but courts will. Tagliabue chided the commissioner by ruling that fines were justified but suspension was not.
Goodell won't like that, but he will take it. It's a strategic retreat, like playing deep Cover-2 with a lead. You gladly give ground as long as the other side does not score.
Tagliabue is as sharp a Washington lawyer as you will find. Bet the rent money that he wrote his findings like a court brief to shield the NFL from Judge Helen Berrigan of the U.S. District Court in New Orleans. The league is good at that. It's how they roll ... over the union every time.
If the two sides had not hardened positions after the lockout, Goodell might have reached the same conclusion, and the union might have encouraged the players to appeal their case sooner before Goodell instead of Tagliabue.
The golden age of labor peace
Tagliabue's time as commissioner stretched from 1989, just before Reggie White opened up modern free agency, to 2006 when pro football cemented its position as America's game. Tagliabue was most effective by bargaining with, not against, the Players Association and the late Gene Upshaw.
For that, both Tags and Upshaw took reputation hits. Upshaw was as tough a bargainer as could be found in the labor movement, but believed unions played a role in the health of their industries. He was accused of being the league's lap dog, but the NFL salary cap was higher under Upshaw than now under the new CBA.
The league enjoyed unparalleled revenue growth and stadium construction during Tagliabue's leadership. That did not stop the small market-big market civil war among owners during the 2006 CBA Extension. That extension was widely acclaimed at the time. We know now that it merely postponed the hostility that erupted over 2010 and 2011.
Upshaw was already voted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he was named NFLPA executive director. Tagliabue might never be voted there.
Players and owners changed directions when Tagliabue retired and Upshaw died. The owners moved to a hard line with a lockout strategy authored by Tagliabue's successor, Roger Goodell. The players did not replace Upshaw with another negotiator. They hired another sharp Washington lawyer, DeMaurice Smith, to sue the bastards.
Enter Paul Tagliabue to plant seeds for negotiated settlements by splitting babies.
"Can't we all just get along?" ~ Rodney King