After applying discipline on two separate occasions in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal, and hearing from many that he was not qualified or authorized to do so, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has recused himself from the process and appointed former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue in his place. Tagliabue, the league's commissioner from 1989 through 2006, will listen to testimony from the four suspended Saints players in an appeal hearing on Oct. 30. The four suspended players will be able to play while the appeal process plays out.
Goodell originally suspended four current and former Saints players in March for what he alleged was their participation in "pay-to-injure" programs led by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. After a three-person panel overruled Goodell's authority to do so unilaterally last month, Goodell re-installed the suspensions on early October. Linebacker Scott Fujita had his three-game suspension reduced to one, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove from eight to seven games, and current Saints Will Smith (four games) and Jonathan Vilma (the entire 2012 season) saw their suspensions unchanged.
Goodell's statement explaining his decision:
"I have held two hearings to date and have modified the discipline in several respects based on my recent meetings with the players. To bring this matter to a prompt and fair conclusion, I have appointed former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to serve as the hearing officer for the upcoming appeals. Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters. He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity.
"To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter nor has he been any part of the process," Goodell said. "Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings. I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue's decisions."
The NFL said in a statement that Goodell consulted with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith on several occasions before making the decision.
This can be seen as a victory for the players, who had asked that Goodell recuse himself based on the idea that he could not possibly be an impartial vessel for discipline in this case. However, the appointment of Tagliabue probably isn't what they were hoping for. While there's no reason to believe that Tagliabue won't be objective in the process, Goodell worked for Tagliabue for years, and the two men are close. Goodell had Tagliabue's recommendation to replace him as the league's commissioner in 2006.
In a recent motion to vacate the suspensions and argue that Goodell could not be impartial, the NFLPA pointed out that the league used to endorse programs in which players were awarded cash prizes. The NFLPA pointed to an ESPN segment from 1996, entitled "Smash for Cash," in which Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White admitted paying small amounts for "big hits" on opposing players. An NFL spokesperson is quoted as saying that "the program is within the rules as long as players use their own monies, the amounts are not exorbitant and the payments are not for illegal hits."
If true, the "Smash for Cash" programs happened on Tagliabue's watch, and the league was aware of it. That provides an interesting precedent for the players, and it may actually put Tagliabue on trial to a degree.
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