NFLPA's rejection of Paul Tagliabue as arbitrator continues cat-and-mouse game over bounty case

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

It is only too perfect that on the day the NFL Players Association made its latest legal chess move in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal case, linebacker Scott Fujita's career likely (and sadly) came to an end.

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The way things are going in this case, all the players will be retired by the time the league is allowed to punish them.

On Wednesday, the NFLPA requested that former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue recuse himself as the appointed appeals arbitrator between the league and the players in the bounty case. The union, partially forced to make the move because of the legal wrangling in the case, is also trying to wear down NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in hopes that he eventually agrees to a revised punishment system.

However, the league shot back Wednesday afternoon.

"We have advised the union that we believe there is no basis on which former Commissioner Tagliabue should recuse himself and we will oppose any request that he do so," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote in an email statement. "The appointment is consistent with the CBA and past practice, and there is no question that Commissioner Tagliabue is fully qualified to hear these appeals."

And on goes the never-ending story of what happens when two sides can't see the bigger picture and figure out a solution. Instead of actually making some type of progress, both the league and the union continue fighting over something that is nothing but a distraction to all involved.

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Worse, at a time when the league desperately wants to promote safety in the game (though Goodell went too far in the process), the NFLPA is seemingly defending a program that creates more threat of injury.

Here's the upshot: Everybody is wrong in the handling of the situation. It's sort of like in the movie "The Unforgiven." There are times when you think a hero will emerge, but then you realize that character is just as flawed as the last one.

The Saints' coaching staff and management were misguided when they allowed this system to continue after they were first questioned by the league after the 2009 season. Goodell overreached on the penalties for the players. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith has been wrong not to work more closely with Goodell to solve the situation and create a system that is just.

The end result is that a story that should have been over within two weeks is now in its seventh month and has yet to really meander that far in the court system. It has become an unnecessary distraction to a Saints team that is already short-handed without coach Sean Payton.

In a business (for both the league and the union) where the emphasis should be completely on the field, the bounty scandal has commanded too much attention. Last week, Goodell was asked at the league meetings if he thought the case would drag on as long as the infamous "Starcaps" case, which took nearly two years to settle.

Goodell looked uncomfortable with the subject and deftly manipulated his answer to stay on point.

"I know this: We believe that it was our responsibility to do everything to protect the integrity of the game and player health and safety," Goodell said. "This information was brought to us three years ago. We then had new information come up just under a year ago late last season, followed it and I think established very clearly that this was occurring. We disclosed it and we are dealing with it because bounties don't belong in football, and we are going to make sure they aren't there in the future..."

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Protecting the game and the NFL shield have been Goodell's mantra as commissioner. He has had to deal with some odd cases in his time, including Pacman Jones' myriad of off-field problems and the Michael Vick dogfighting scandal. Those cases tested his ability to maintain the positive image of the league.

Furthermore, Goodell is now fighting a battle against more than 1,500 former players who have sued over concussions. Goodell has to be proactive regarding player health and safety.

What the union and the players need to understand is that protecting that image is central to their success, as well. The problem is that Goodell has gone too far on occasion, leading to growing resentment among the players. Still, even Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, one of the four players who is still subject to punishment, said he thought the move to bring in Tagliabue was a "good first step."

This would be easy to fix if Goodell had a willing partner on the NFLPA side. If Smith understood the big picture instead of trying to prove that he can topple the mountains created by moles, this whole issue could have been solved by now.

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Instead, Smith wants to play legal games that just infuriate the customer just as much as Goodell wants to show he's the era's Kennesaw Mountain Landis.

So the whole show drags on and on, getting dumber by the moment.

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