The decision by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to not suspend Tampa Bay cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) for now set off immediate alarms among those familiar with Goodell's position on the player conduct policy.
"I'm truly stunned by this," one source said. "You look at the things other players have been suspended for and what I was told they were thinking about and this makes no sense. I can't wait to have this one explained to me."
Another source referred to the situation as "cloak-and-dagger" behind the scenes negotiating between the NFL and the NFL Players Association as both the league and the union try to sort out whether the league has the legal standing to suspend players who got into trouble while the league was locking out the players.
This is a huge change of direction for the league and Goodell, who earlier this week suspended former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor(notes) five games before allowing him into the supplemental draw (where he was taken by Oakland). Pryor violated no laws. Rather, he violated only NCAA policies which ultimately paved the way for him to leave school.
In addition, NFL attorney Jeff Pash repeatedly indicated in July that Goodell had the authority to suspend players who got in trouble during the lockout. Sources told Yahoo! Sports' Michael Silver this week that the league and the union had agreed to allow Goodell to suspend eight players who had gotten into trouble during the lockout. Earlier this week, sources also told Yahoo! that Talib was going to be suspended for at least four games.
George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director of external affairs, couldn't be reached for comment.
"Aqib Talib and the Buccaneers were informed Friday that Commissioner Goodell has decided to defer the consideration of discipline until Talib's case is resolved," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an email Saturday night. This is believed to be the first time Goodell has deferred a decision since the policy was adopted in 2007.
The decision is curious because Talib has gotten into trouble before and had to meet with Goodell. Talib has twice been involved in fights with players and assaulted a cab driver in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2009. In addition, his latest off-field incident involves accusations of Talib and his mother firing a gun at the then-boyfriend of his sister and Talib pistol-whipping the same man. Talib has been indicted on the matter and faces trial in 2012.
In the past, Goodell has suspended players for less, such as with Pryor. There was also the decision to suspend Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger(notes) for six games (the suspension was later reduced to four games) without ever being charged in either of two incidents. Roethlisberger is being sued in civil court for sexual assault in Nevada in 2009 and was investigated after a similar accusation in Georgia in 2010.
Goodell has also suspended players prior to the conclusion of the legal process, such as with former Tennessee cornerback Pacman Jones in 2007. Aiello said that deferring suspension was not unusual, although Goodell has said he has the power to suspend players pending legal outcome.
"In just about all instances, a decision on league discipline comes after a case is resolved," Aiello wrote.
Goodell also met with Tennessee wide receiver Kenny Britt(notes) this week. He also avoided any punishment. In addition, several other players, including Jones, Cedric Benson(notes) and Perrish Cox(notes) were expected to face some type of discipline from Goodell.
All of that may change in the aftermath of the Talib decision. Moreover, the league and union could be facing serious legal challenges if players are suspended for conduct during the lockout.
"If there was any deal between the league and the union before the union recertified, I'm going to demand the paperwork on that," one source said.
Of course, Goodell could revisit the situation after Talib goes to trial, depending on the result. Either way, observers of the policy are expected to follow this case closely and use it as precedent for future cases. Some wonder if this is the beginning of a weakening of Goodell's power.
"Players have been calling for due process more than ever," a source said. "I don't know if you want to use Talib as the poster child for the cause, but there has to be some change somewhere along the line."
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- Aqib Talib