Saturday, February 17, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Gary Shelton: Paul Tagliabue's Bountygate ruling puts Roger Goodell in his place

If you did not know better, you might wonder if someone took out a bounty on Roger Goodell.

Man, did he get blindsided by Paul Tagliabue.

As the announcers say during the replays, that one is going to leave a mark.

In the name of justice, and in the name of about time, the NFL's old boss overruled the new boss Tuesday on the Bountygate suspensions of Saints players. Somebody had to do it. Goodell, the infallible czar of the NFL, was outharrumphed by Tagliabue, who used to be the infallible czar of the NFL.

If you are scoring at home, in other words, Goodell is no longer undefeated. This one he lost.

I know, I know. In certain parts this is going to be painted as a victory for the players but a loss for the Saints' coaches, who will now inherit all the blame for this play-to-injure conspiracy. It was those guys who ordered the hit; the poor Saints players were merely carrying out orders when they went after various knees in various games. You know, like the Tonya Harding Gang.

Make no mistake, however. Goodell looks much less powerful today than he did yesterday.

For the NFL, maybe that will turn out to be a good thing.

The point here is not to celebrate the Saints, who weren't exactly innocent in this play-outside-of-the-rules conspiracy. Tagliabue wiped away the bounty punishments, but he was careful to make sure Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith were not cleared of wrongdoing. In fact, he pointed out that more players could have been named.

In his ruling, however, Tagliabue chose to blame the coaches, not their employees.

Which raises this question: Why didn't Goodell?

Tagliabue also allowed that the bounty message by the Saints might have been merely motivational rhetoric.

"I cannot uphold a multigame suspension where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine,'' Taglilabue's ruling said. "Nor can I find justified a suspension where (former defensive coordinator Gregg) Williams and other Saints personnel so carefully crafted an environment that would encourage and allow a player to make such an ill-advised and imprudent offer. I therefore vacate the suspension of Jonathan Vilma."

If Tagliabue can consider those kind of nuances, why couldn't Goodell?

Then there is the case of linebacker Scott Fujita. Tagliabue said it was "undisputed'' that Fujita did not participate in the bounty program and that he was not guilty of conduct detrimental to the league.

If Tagliabue could see that, why couldn't Goodell?

That's the important part of what happened Tuesday. By differing with Goodell, Tagliabue proved that, yes, the NFL does need an appeals process. Sometimes, it does need a clearer head, a different voice, another viewpoint. No one is right all the time.

For years, the NFL has operated that way. The commissioner was judge, and jury, and executioner, and if you didn't like it, tough. You could just go read the collective bargaining agreement. And when you were done, you could fold it into a funny hat.

In hindsight, Goodell looks as if he was quick to judge and slow to reconsider. He seems petty. He seems stubborn. He seems wrong.

From the first, Goodell seemed to treat the phrase "trust me'' as real evidence. Fujita protested vigorously, and still we didn't see the evidence. Vilma howled, and no evidence. Hargrove snarled, and no evidence. What if at least one of those players — Fujita, according to Tagliabue — was guilty of nothing?

Now ask yourself this: What if this was your team?

Around the league, not many fans of one team share the pain of another. But what if it was your team? What if a commissioner rushed to judgment to punish players without the ability to make the punishment stick? In the meantime, what if you saw your team's season swirl down the toilet?

Yeah, you would probably want an appeal process, too.

For goodness' sake, the American legal system is built around the right to appeal. And a football commissioner is above that? Really? The smartest people on the planet discuss their conclusions with other smart people every day.

I have said this before: If I ran the NFL, I would set up a three-person appeals board. Let the owners pick one representative. Let the players association pick another. Let the sides agree on a smart, impartial third party (Tony Dungy comes to mind). And if a player believes his punishment is wrong, let him appeal.

What's the downside? Why would a commissioner want to be the sole solution to wrongdoing? Power? Ego? The belief he is Batman?

Through Goodell's tenure, I have believed he has had the best of intentions. His discipline has come swiftly and strongly.

But when you are the ultimate boss, there are guidelines. You better be right, and you better be sure.

This time Goodell was wrong.

Odd that it took his old boss to point it out.

Listen to Gary Shelton weekdays from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on 98.7-FM the Fan.

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