The word came on Friday afternoon – when all embarrassing news is pushed to be buried – that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will recuse himself from hearing appeals in the New Orleans Saints bounty case. Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue will take over, meaning Goodell will no longer determine if his own previous decisions were proper.
The move was met with shock across the NFL, not because it was a bad idea, per se. No one's ever fully explained the logic of having the same guy be the sentencing and appellate judge, but then again, that was always the lesson here.
Goodell always did as Goodell wanted. He even convinced the union to agree to the process in the last collective bargaining agreement. He's the big, blond, (supposedly) benevolent dictator of the NFL, a man who might never have had a second thought in his life.
The surprise was that now someone will make one for him, a massive crack in Goodell's public image that extends a mess that's left the commissioner flailing about for steady ground.
Bringing in Tagliabue makes almost no sense for Goodell or the NFL.
It's not that Tagliabue isn't a fair-minded man. He is. A lawyer with a deep commitment to process and restraint, he ran the league from 1989-2006 in a closer partnership with the NFLPA than Goodell, his former general counsel and eventual successor, currently does. Where Goodell has cracked down on just about all off-field player trouble, Tags once refused to suspend Ray Lewis after he pled guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder.
It was the court's, not the NFL's, jurisdiction, Tagliabue argued, and that was a fair enough explanation.
So the union likes its chances with the old boss rather than the new boss. But where's the upside for Goodell?
If Tagliabue reverses (or even just reduces) Goodell's decision to suspend four Saints players for participating in a bounty scandal, then it looks like the league needed to bring back its old, wise leader to clean up the mess of the young brash one. No one, in any profession, wants the guy who held the job prior to be involved in public second-guessing/rebuking.
Then again, if Tagliabue just upholds Goodell's judgment, the decision will be seen as an inside job, the old boss covering for the new one, NFL owners creating the illusion of real jurisprudence that the public – and players – will reject. Fair or not, Tagliabue will struggle to be seen as fair if he sides with the man he groomed to replace him.
"To be clear," Goodell said in a statement, "I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter, nor has he been any part of the process."
If you have to explain that the appeal process isn't corrupt, let alone specifically note that the new guy didn't consult on the original penalties (even though it would be reasonable to assume he might have), then there really isn't much hope for credibility. And that's especially true from the groups (some fans, some players) who already think this was a witch hunt.
The best process – and judge – needs no defense.
Goodell and the NFL will regret not finding a true independent mind here – there is no shortage of retired judges out there who could've sorted this out. In an actual legal court, Tagliabue would have to recuse himself because of his past. And the idea that this is too complicated for anyone but a NFL commissioner, past or present, is the definition of arrogance. All this does is call into question what, in all likelihood, is meant to be a legitimate process.
If Goodell was truly convinced that he made the right call on what is obviously a complicated and difficult case, then he would welcome the most independent appeal process imaginable. Even if he lost, he could throw up his arms and say, "Look, I'm trying to protect players and I still think I was right." He'd have an out, the ability to say that a non-football judge doesn't understand the demands of the commissioner's office, the NFL or what he's trying to do here.
Instead Goodell's going to come out looking even worse. No matter the final verdict. The entire process has shed light on Goodell's system of disciplining players. Faced with career-altering suspensions, the players, especially Jonathan Vilma, fought back in a way you can't when you've been hit with a DUI or some other nonsense.
Goodell's argument about protecting the players rings hollow after the NFL's slow reaction to brain injury research, although it's fair and proper that he makes it a priority now, essentially correcting past mistakes.
However, it stands in stark contrast with Goodell's stated intent to get an 18-game season, which would exasperate every health issue. And it doesn't jibe with the move to stage a Thursday night game each week – requiring players to go on three days of rest.
How much fans really care about the health and safety of the players is debatable. Long-term concerns are easily voiced, but, in reality, the fans want the game to go on. Short-term concerns are a different deal; they affect the product on the field. The Thursday experiment is yielding troubling results.
It's bad enough watching a rookie quarterback such as Seattle's Russell Wilson look completely unprepared against San Francisco on Thursday after such a short week of prep. It's another when the 49ers sit running back Frank Gore in the fourth quarter for being essentially beaten to a pulp over the course of two brutally violent games in five days. The Thursday game is great for fan interest and revenue, but what of the players? What of the quality of play? Why not a second bye week, one of which is required before each Thursday game? Or why have the Thursday games at all?
In the past, Goodell could always just barrel ahead through any and all criticism. That was his style. He was so certain of himself. So smooth. So confident. He was impossible to slow down. The son of a U.S. senator, he was seemingly built to become the boss of the NFL.
Then along came the player's lockout and the Saints and the ref's lockout and then this appeal that drags on and spins odd and continues to chip away at Goodell's old veneer. Now, deep on a Friday afternoon comes word of Tagliabue returning out of nowhere to decide the controversy later this month (at least until actual courts weigh in). Goodell is either going to get humbled by the old boss or seen as part of some ridiculous ruse to create the illusion of a real appeals process.
Either way Roger Goodell, once a winner on a roll, can't help but lose. It seems to be happening a lot of late.
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