The NFL will make the case that some major findings were upheld by Paul Tagliabue's ruling on the appeal of the player suspensions in the Saints' "bounty" case, but the reality is that the former commissioner poked some significant holes in the league's allegations and made it clear that had he been running this investigation things would not have been nearly as draconian as what Goodell handed down. In doing so, Tagliabue may have bolstered the case for additional litigation in this case, with sources indicating to me that Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove could end up pursuing lawsuits similar to Jonathan Vilma's ongoing case against the commissioner and the league.
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As all sides digested the 22-page ruling, it will no doubt become a critical document moving forward. Goodell's reputation among players, which has been sinking in recent months, will take a further hit here. One cannot help but wonder if there is reshuffling within the NFL offices, as well, as fallout mounts. Goodell brought new faces into his inner circle in recent years, with some longtime NFL confidants no longer in the office on a daily basis. Some league insiders have mentioned to me throughout the duration of this "bounty" saga that this may have been handled very differently had some of those old heads still been as heavily involved, going back to the original language and tone set by press releases on Goodell's rulings, as well as the letter sent to teams updating them on the matter. Most certainly today's ruling chips away at the idea of the complete power of the commissioner to navigate the terms of such player discipline moving forward.
No doubt that issue has strained relationships between the league office and the Saints -- with the denial of coach Sean Payton's contract extension another touchstone issue -- and executives from other teams have commented privately that perhaps the league office has been overzealous in its dealings with team matters. This decision possibly could lead to smoothing out some of those feelings, and may impact the manner with which the league communicates with teams on sensitive issues. The upcoming year could define Goodell's legacy, with these bounty lawsuits possibly lingering for some time, as well as the collusion suits still ahead, and the class-action concussion lawsuits, while the battle over HGH testing rages on and will lead the NFL and NFLPA back to Washington on Wednesday.
No one could argue that Tagliabue, one of Goodell's mentors, raised significant questions with key evidence and witnesses in this case and the commissioner's decisions on player discipline. Tagliabue makes the case that Fujita did not engage in "conduct detrimental," and never should have been suspended. He makes the case that Hargrove probably warranted a fine for obstructing the process to some degree, but not a suspension. He implies that players are taught to listen to coaches -- it's ingrained in them -- and to level such historic punishments for what appears to be much more of a pay-for-performance program than a bounty targeting specific players, is unjust.
Hargrove and Fujita may stand to gain the most. Hargrove missed an entire season in large part because his status was so nebulous for so long as these appeals and decisions played out. He lost a shot at a year of salary, a year of benefits, an accrued season for pension. He lost the chance to keep playing football and putting plays on tape that could lead to future contracts and aid his position as a free agent (having signed a one-year deal with green Bay prior to his release). As someone who was already in the league's substance-abuse program, he had his character attacked, claims made about what he allegedly said on the field -- that seems untrue -- and as Tagliabue notes the NFL could not even make clear exactly what was asked of him by investigators. It's way too late to expect to catch on with a team now, so 2012 was taken away from him. This ruling doesn't give it back and the only way to gain restitution and damages would be through the courts -- and I would not be surprised in the least if there were no shortage of lawyers eager to take on that case after reading this ruling.
Fujita isn't even included among the other three players in the conclusion section at the very end of the ruling, as Tagliabue notes only Hargrove, Will Smith and Vilma engaged in “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football." Fujita was resolute throughout this matter that he never took part in pay to injure and Tagliabue affirms that. He was there for only one season of the program (2009) yet was somehow among the four players plucked from that entire defensive roster and facing suspension.
With his career now likely over because of a neck condition that landed him on IR with the Browns, Fujita spent his final weeks in the NFL having to defend himself from these allegations. He happens to be represented by agent Don Yee, an accomplished lawyer who also represents Payton. If Fujita were to decide to pursue recourse against the league, he would seem to be incredibly well positioned.
Smith has told other players he has been mulling a lawsuit as well, and as someone who went through a similar ordeal during the STARCAPS case, some are taking him at his word.
Obviously, Vilma will continue to pursue his case against Goodell. The fact that Tagliabue could not confirm the league's allegation of Vilma having money in his hand prior to the 2009 NFC Championship Game, among other things, would seem to help his case, saying "there was no evidence" of any player paying money to injure an opponent in that game and that there was no evidence that Vilma's speech in way led to "causing misconduct on the playing field."
The overall tone of Tagliabue's ruling points very negatively at the Saints staff and front office for overseeing such a program. Yet, it must be noted, he did not speak to GM Mickey Loomis or Payton as part of the appeal process. So for as much as anyone might say this ruling negatively impacts them, it must be noted the role they played once Tagliabue took over the appeal was scant. And Payton never met with investigators until March, sources said, while the investigation had long been going on, so his degree of obstruction could be argued as well.
Most suspect the Saints eventually will get Payton signed to a contract extension. If not, Goodell would be in the uncomfortable position of having to rule on whether the final year of his existing contract tolls into 2013. If he rules it does, the league could be sued by one of its best coaches. If he doesn't, he most certainly would be looking at getting sued by an owner. Neither is desirable and makes 2013 potentially all the more interesting for the league office.
Gregg Williams could be the biggest loser in all of this. As Tagliabue notes the coaches cannot appeal their discipline and Williams is still hoping for reinstatement after the Super Bowl. Given the tone of this document, the league very well could continue his suspension. After having so much of its discipline in this case muted, Williams would be an easy target with which to make a point. The league could latch on to statements from Tagliabue like, "I strongly condemn the misconduct of the Saints' coaches, and this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints organization." Tagliabue clearly takes issue with the wording of slides and motivation material the defensive staff provided to players as well that was included as evidence.
One could argue the already unprecedented penalties given to Williams and Payton were enough, but given all of the time and effort the league put into this case, and how staunchly it stood behind its findings even as parts of the case seemed to be crumbling -- now coupled with this ruling on player discipline -- perhaps the NFL digs in its heels even more on Williams. Some wonder if his suspension gets extended by another year -- regardless, expect the ramifications of this entire episode to linger and resonate for quite some time.