Tagliabue’s Ruling on BountyGate best possible outcome for the Steelers, football, Fujita, and Goodell

Doug Pensinger

The Saints’ organization is the true culprit, says former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, but his final ruling also finds blame for Commissioner Goodell.

On Dec. 11, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue issued his final decision on appeal in which he affirmed the "factual findings" of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell against the New Orleans Saints organization and the four players, Saints DE Anthony Hargrove, DE Will Smith, LB Scott Fujita, and LB Jonathan Vilma who were implicated in what is commonly known as "BountyGate."

In Tagliabue's final decision, all fines, loss of draft picks, and suspensions of Saints coaches and its general manager were affirmed and kept in place.

In Tagliabue's words:

"...Commissioner Goodell's findings and the resulting suspensions of these Saints' personnel are final and no longer subject to appeal...I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players."

The ruling clearly ratifies Goodell's findings against the Saints' head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, and general manager Mickey Loomis, and the ruling also strongly condemns the entire Saints organization, affirming Goodell's characterization of the Saints' organization's knowledge of the "pay-to-injure" pool, its explicit and tacit approval of its existence and its participation in such a pool, describing it as "particularly unusual and egregious, ‘totally unacceptable', and to constitute "conduct detrimental" to the game of professional football and the NFL and to be a violation of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws".

Tagliabue found fault with all four players, but found the NFL's contentions lacking in merit toward Fujita on the grounds that Fujita was not involved in any form of "pay-to-injure" bonus pool unlike the other three players and to Tagliabue this was a clear and concise distinction. Tagliabue found that Fujita organized and ran his own "pay-for performance" pool, in violation of existing rules, which rewarded players for interceptions, forced fumbles, etc.

He goes on to state that while the league has long known that performance pools exist in the NFL, and despite the ban on them to avoid the very stigma this "pay-to-injure" scandal has created, nonetheless given the league's history of delegating the responsibility for enforcing the ban against such pools down to the individual clubs, and the league's practice of only penalizing the clubs themselves for a player's involvement in such pools, he found Fujita's actions were not the equivalent of conduct detrimental and vacated his suspension. This was the best possible outcome Fujita could hope for.

The ruling also clearly ratifies the findings against the players. It especially ratifies Goodell's findings of Vilma's conduct to be "detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football."

However, Tagliabue still vacated all disciplinary actions against all four players.

Although Tagliabue affirmed Goodell's general finding that Hargrove "contributed to the obstruction of the investigation...as instructed by his coaches", he found mitigating factors justifying the lifting of the two games left in the suspension.

Tagliabue vacated Smith's suspension on the grounds that they would be "...selective prosecution of allegations of misconduct..." and such selective enforcement did "not satisfy basic requirements for consistent treatment of player-employees similarly situated."

He found sufficient amounts of evidence that the alleged Vilma speech prior to the 2010 NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings actually took place during which Vilma offered $10,000 to any player injuring Brett Favre. This ruling could be a keystone in Goodell's legal defense against defamation charges brought by Vilma. It won't shield Goodell from the charge, but it will make Vilma's attempts to prove he was defamed more difficult if there is already sufficient evidence proving Vilma said what he is accused of saying, and, as Tagliabue wrote:

"...But each player made choices that do not reflect favorably on him."

It's hard to claim your reputation has been defamed if your actions are already found to reflect poorly upon you.

However, Tagliabue vacated Vilma's suspension based on insurmountable evidence of the Saints coaches and organization's direct involvement with such injury pools. He wrote:

"...Nor can I find justified a suspension where (Gregg) Williams [then defensive coordinator] and other Saints' personnel so carefully crafted an environment that would encourage and allow a player to make such an ill-advised and imprudent offer."

Tagliabue specifically described Goodell's attempt to change the culture of football, for the sake of player safety, as being done in a manner which focused on "...prohibitions, and discipline and sanctions that are seen as selective, ad hoc, or inconsistent..."

Even more specifically, Tagliabue found that:

"In other words, 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."

The fact that Tagliabue is so specific in his ruling in renouncing the manner by which Goodell is attempting to institute immediate change in fundamental elements of the game is the best possible outcome for the Steelers in particular, and the game of football in general.

It vindicates the Steelers' refusal to ratify the 2011 CBA due to the powers of "judge, jury and executioner" it gave to an NFL Commissioner who has wielded such powers in such a draconian manner as Goodell, with little or no consideration or regard to the integrity of the game of football, and in a manner that still reeks of hypocrisy when he tries to cloak his actions as being in the best interest of the players' health and safety.

This ruling highlights what the Steelers and Steeler Nation have been saying from that fateful Week 6 in 2010 when the league imposed a $75,000 fine against Steelers OLB James Harrison for his helmet -to-helmet hits on Cleveland Browns' WR Mohamed Massaquoi. That weekend the league also fined Brandon Meriweather of the New England Patriots and Dunta Robinson of the Atlanta Falcons for similar hits.

It was on this weekend in October that Goodell apparently decided the culture of football had to be changed immediately. It was the suddenness by which the league decided to heavily emphasize to the referees that they would be expected to be hyper vigilant in their lookout for these types of hits, and in the league unilaterally deciding to imposing greater sanctions, including emphasis on suspensions, that caused such an uproar amongst the Steeler players and Steeler Nation. As explained by NFL football operations executive Ray Anderson:

"... that the league will hold players accountable under a "strict liability" standard for illegal hits to the head and neck starting with games this week, (link and emphasis added) saying the league will not apologize for trying to protect players' safety."

But where is Goodell's concern over defensive linemen still at risk of suffering career ending knee injuries due to "chop blocks" the offensive linemen are allowed to employ? Goodell is being, as Tagliabue describes, "selective, ad hoc, or inconsistent" in his choice of which players he is actively trying to "protect" and those he allows to remain at risk.

Finally, Tagliabue's ruling is the best possible outcome for football and the Office of Commissioner of the NFL because it clearly legitimizes the authority with which the commissioner can enforce the rules under the CBA. This means that the appeals process, as outlined in the CBA works; the players appealed, they had their day in the Commissioner's court, and the initial findings were upheld, despite the players protestation of innocence. However, the players were completely justified in pushing this matter further, to force a review of the mishandling of the manner of enforcement of the rule and dispensing of punishment by Roger Goodell, acting as the Commissioner.

In other words, what Tagliabue's ruling overturned was Goodell's manner of enforcement of the rules and the punishment dispensed by Goodell, not his findings of wrong doing, or the process of appeal.

Fujita was not exonerated because he didn't break any rules; he was exonerated because, by the league's own actions, precedence had been set whereby his club should have been punished for his actions, not him. The players got off in large part because the ruling references 27 unnamed players on the Saints' team who had some level of involvement in the pool, but were not sanctioned by the league; it was Goodell's failure to properly enforce the rules that was overturned not the enforcement itself.

The fact that this ruling shows this particular commissioner has been inept in instituting changes to the culture of football, implementing rules, enforcing rules, and dispensing punishment in no way invalidates the powers of the office, and that is paramount to the continuing health and growth of the NFL as a business.

Football needs the commissioner's office to be strong, competent, and embodying the necessary powers to protect the game from itself, whether that means from players' specific behavior, or from harm caused by the club owners' avarice.

Tagliabue's ruling is the best possible outcome for Goodell because it gives him a clear and specific assessment of his failings as commissioner of the NFL, and gives instructions on how the commissioner should have acted, both in terms of instituting changes for the benefit of the game and its players, and how punishment should properly be dispensed.

The jury is still out whether Goodell has the strength of character to change for the sake of the game, or continue his arrogant, erroneous ways.

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