Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue had a lot to say Tuesday with the release of his findings and rulings. It was 22 pages worth. The final paragraph: “I affirm the factual findings of Commissioner Goodell; I conclude that Hargrove, Smith, and Vilma engaged in “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football”; and I vacate all player discipline.”
In short, it means that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith will be able to play out the rest of the season. It also means that former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove will not have to serve suspensions.
So what does the Tagliabue decision mean? It seems to say the players were unprofessional in a way — but not in a way that merited the suspensions?
Judging by the many callers to my radio show, "The Sports Hangover” and a stroll around message boards, fans feel vindicated. It's proof the NFL had a vendetta against the New Orleans Saints. The opinions ranged from conspiracy theories to lessons learned.
NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello was quick to point out on Twitter that the NFL was just in its decisions and inquiry. “Memo to NFLPA — Paul Tagliabue wrote: "I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players." Aiello then made it seem as if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was merciful in his rulings. “Tagliabue: "There is evidence in the record that suggests Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater # of Saints players."
I was surprised. It’s not that I didn’t think the suspensions were extreme; they were. It was that I couldn’t see the man formerly in the office of Commissioner hurt, hinder or weaken the position of Roger Goodell, his successor.
The decision was carefully crafted. It gave the players what they wanted while giving the league what they wanted. Bounty penalties were vacated meaning the players would not have to serve the suspensions handed down. Win for the players.
Tagliabue did write however that there was a pay for performance program that could have warranted fines if the league saw fit — a loss for the players in a way.
A large majority of fans that called today didn’t want to hear that there was a program of some sorts: “Everyone does it” or “What was actually proven?”
Look, players admitted there were reward-based programs where a key play or a big hit was rewarded in some way, shape or fashion. They maintained that the “intent” was not to injure. Good luck trying to prove that. That's what Saints fans have been screaming to the high heavens about. “Talk” is one thing and “actions” are another. On any given game day, fans yell “kill him!” or other phrases that aren’t meant to be taken literally. Tagliabue, in his conclusion, said this very thing and is a reason the suspensions were vacated.
Tagliabue’s final paragraph says as much when he says that while he found enough evidence that talk prior to the NFC Championship game regarding taking out Vikings quarterback Brett Favre took place, the actions on the field didn’t make him feel that one translated to the other.
“I neither excuse nor condone the alleged offer of a bounty on Favre, whether offered by any player, coach, other Saints’ employee or third party. Such conduct has no place in the game of professional football. I cannot, however, uphold a multi-game 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. Nor can I find justified a suspension where 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.”
Tagliabue did say that he felt there was enough evidence to say that Vilma placed a $10K bounty on Favre but:
“It is essential to recognize that Vilma is being most severely disciplined for “talk” or speech at a team meeting on the evening before the Saints-Vikings game,” states Tagliabue. “He is not being punished for his performance on the field and, indeed, none of the discipline of any player here relates to on-field conduct. No Saints’ player was suspended for on-field play by the League after the game in question. If the League wishes to suspend a player for pre-game talk including “offers” to incentivize misconduct, it must start by imposing enhanced discipline for illegal hits that involve the kind of player misconduct that it desires to interdict. The relationship of the discipline for the off-field “talk” and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness. It rests also on the competence of NFL officiating and the obligation and ability of the League to closely observe playing field misconduct, record it and review for illegal hits or other related misconduct.”
To me, it boils down to this. There are more than 3,000 players suing the NFL for concussion-related issues. The league used the Saints as the poster child, the scapegoat, the example. It had to show that they are “serious” about player safety. Yeah, I know — the same league that forced every team to play a Thursday night game this season, 13 weeks’ worth and has said they would like a team to be based in London (so what if it takes longer to travel there and adjust to time differences, etc.).
Today was a big deal. It was a landmark decision because the players took on the commissioner, got a federal judge to say hey we need someone impartial and then that party ruled that while the league has the right to investigate and punish it also needs to a better job of deciphering intent.
This topic isn’t going away anytime soon, especially in the New Orleans area. The Saints entered the season as Super Bowl contenders and as we hit the middle part of December have been relegated to the role of spoilers.
I feel for the fans that pay good money to watch a product that was diluted one way or another because of the decisions. Businesses took a hit as well. One sponsor on my show told me his apparel store is down 75 percent in sales from a season ago.
With all due respect: the person in charge of doing dealings for the greater good of the league failed to realize just what a decision like this meant to a city, an organization and a fan base.