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Paul Tagliabue finds ‘conduct detrimental,’ but vacates all Saints player suspensions upon appeal

Doug Farrar
Shutdown Corner

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Goodell and Tagliabue in August, 2006, on the day that Goodell was named NFL Commissioner. (Getty Images)

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has issued his ruling after hearing from parties on all sides in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, and Roger Goodell's predecessor has made a surprising decision: All player suspensions are vacated. Tagliabue, the league's commissioner from 1989 through 2006, when Goodell replaced him, was asked by Goodell to handle all further player appeals on the NFL level to avoid an increasing sense that the league was operating a kangaroo court. While Goodell seemed to punish before hearing all the evidence, Tagliabue weighed evidence and testimony from players and coaches before coming to a final verdict.

"Unlike the Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects. My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.

"Having reviewed the testimony very carefully, including documentary evidence that is at the center of the conflict, and having assessed the credibility of the four central witnesses on these matters, I find there is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. [Saints linebacker Jonathan] Vilma offered such a bounty [on then-Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship game]."

The NFL issued its own statement.

"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters. This matter has now been reviewed by Commissioner Goodell, two CBA grievance arbitrators, the CBA Appeals Panel, and Mr. Tagliabue as Commissioner Goodell's designated appeals officer. The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the CBA to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."

Vilma, who is pursuing a defamation suit against Goodell individually, will not drop that suit based on this ruling, per his attorney, Peter Ginsberg.

"Jonathan intends to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation," Ginsberg said in an e-mail sent to Andrew Siciliano of the NFL Network. "We're pleased that the unjust penalties have been overturned, but this is only one piece in remedying things for Jonathan."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees went to Twitter and most likely perfectly expressed the thoughts and feeling of everyone in his locker room.

Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, some things can never be taken back.

Tagliabue did leave quite a few back doors for his colleague, though. By affirming conduct detrimental, and tying his own ruling to aspects of Goodell's decisions, the former commissioner not only weakened Vilma's defamation suit, but gave Goodell further let to go after those in the Saints organization he may still wish to punish. Goodell can override the standard discipline process per the CBA by invoking the "conduct detrimental" clause in certain instances. And, by calling into question the testimony of certain members of the Saints organization, Tagliabue basically slapped down Goodell's decision without specifically saying that Goodell acted outside the boundaries of his power.

"I neither excuse nor condone the alleged offer of a bounty on Favre, whether offered by any player, coach, other Saints employee, or third party," Tagliabue said in his ruling, opining specifically on the allegations that Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty to any player who injured Favre in that championship game. "Such conduct has no place in the game of professional football. I cannot, however, uphold a multi-game suspension where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such conduct was severe enough to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine.

"Nor can I find justified a suspension where [former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg] Williams 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. I therefore vacate the suspension of Jonathan Vilma."

Stay tuned for more details.

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