The simple takeaway from former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue's decision to vacate the player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints bounty case is that successor Roger Goodell overstepped his bounds, that the players were really just following orders and that the team's coaches and executives were the real villains.
And it took almost nine months to figure that out?
The saddest part is that the real issue – the elimination of bounties and other extracurricular activities that foist unnecessary violence on an already violent game – has been lost in a series of legal maneuvers and wasted time. Moreover, the authority of Goodell to administer punishment for activity that is not in the best interest of the game or the players has been undermined.
And trust me, Goodell is at the head of the dunce line in this case, right alongside Saints head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and linebacker Jonathan Vilma. The only guy who came out of this completely unscathed and fully exonerated was former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita, one of the few people involved who acted as if he understood the issues at hand.
Tagliabue affirmed all of what Goodell and the NFL discovered in their investigation, but also made it clear that the commissioner went too far with the players. Tagliabue voided all punishment for the players, but also said that Vilma made the speech he was accused of making, and that Payton and the others pushed for the bounty system.
Some people will look at that as clever lawyering on Tagliabue's part, a way for him to get rid of the player penalties while keeping Goodell on firm legal ground as he faces a defamation lawsuit from Vilma. But if you look deeper into this, Tagliabue basically blamed everybody. At a time when both the league and the players had a great chance to repudiate the game's dirty side, they wasted an opportunity. Instead of the parties taking a stand against unnecessary violence, they spent Tuesday afternoon arguing who won.
"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," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement. "Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."
The NFL Players Association later came back with: "Vacating all discipline affirms the players' unwavering position that all allegations the League made about their alleged 'intent-to-injure' were utterly and completely false. We are happy for our members."
Both sides would have been better off to hire Gloria Clemente as their official spokesperson and have her recite her famous "Sometimes when you win, you actually lose" soliloquy.
Sure, Goodell lost the most immediately because his penalties against the players were overturned. Then again, Goodell should have known from the start that the players were the weakest actors in this whole drama.
As Fujita explained in the offseason, players don't have much choice but to follow orders. Unless you're someone with the power of Drew Brees, you do what the coach says and keep a smile on your face.
"As a player, you know that the coach has control over your future and, for most of us, we know that there are a lot of guys waiting in line to do our job," Fujita said.
In other words, Goodell's penalties against the players were a version of taking a bayonet to the helpless. Yes, players should have stood up to Williams when he demanded over-the-top hits on opposing players. That sounds great in a made-for-TV movie. Try it in real life.
Likewise, the players never really understood Goodell's goal. What Goodell wanted all along was a photo op back in April with him, NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and the players standing together, decrying unsafe play.
That not only would have been positive, it would have put this thing to bed in weeks. Instead, what has gone on is nine months of wrangling that did more to undermine and confuse the issues than give clarity to them.
Even if the big picture was obvious.
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