Yes, these were brains, not lower guts, on display Tuesday by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue as he “vacated all player discipline” imposed by current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Saints players involved in Bountygate. In other words, Tags handled the messy task of walking back Roger God-ell and his dictatorial take on commissioner-ing, most clearly displayed by his overreach and over-punishment without sufficient evidence, without due process and without a clear path of appeal.
What this was not was a rebuke of Rog, as has been widely described. Tags saved him. Actually, he saved The League, protected The Shield, as they are so fond of saying in NFL circles, by insulating the league from a Jonathan Vilma defamation lawsuit. Brian McCarthy, @NFLprguy on Twitter, actually delivered the most honest summary of what happened Tuesday when he tweeted:
“Tagliabue says he wanted to resolve matter completely so NFL and NFLPA can move on to address player safety issues.”
Translation: The NFL is about to be hip-to-waders deep in lawsuits about concussions and the overall safety of the game to be fighting a couple of players — in court, with the power of discovery — on whether they intentionally hurt a couple of other players.
Rog had gone one bridge too far with the bounty scandal. For whatever reason, he let this get personal with Vilma. The league’s handling of the scandal was bleeped from the beginning, long before Vilma fought back.
The investigation was not really an investigation at all. The penalties that followed were crazy harsh, certainly when factoring in what little they had in the way of evidence as opposed to hearsay and quantum leaps. The appeals process was a joke, with Roger basically upholding himself. And when Vilma took them to court and basically got a temporary restraining order to get the players back on the field, it was on. Roger went apoplectic about a player challenging him, because nobody ever really fights back.
This was how Roger found himself backed into a corner that Tags saved him from Tuesday. What Tags did was give him political cover to maneuver. Roger now can say that the players did this awful thing, the league is just concerned about safety and the players got their day in court, which is exactly what the league did say in a really long, self-congratulatory statement.
The best parts were the lines about how Tags’ decision “underscores the due process afforded to player in NFL disciplinary matters” and how Tags basically agreed with Roger on everything.
Well, everything except for:
• Scott Fujita’s involvement. Tags totally exonerated him.
• The severity of the punishment. Tags said it was too much.
• Whether there was definitive proof, whether the process was clean and whether these four players were basically denied a year of their playing careers. Saints quarterback Drew Brees was right when he tweeted Tuesday: “Unfortunately, there are some things that can never been taken back.”
So, basically, what Tags did was agree there was a bounty program and some fines were probably in order. It is wrong, though, to say Goodell lost Tuesday. He already had lost. Tuesday just gave him an exit strategy.
About the only real loser is former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who’s still suspended indefinitely. Tags said to blame the coaches, and Williams was the only one on tape screaming “kill the head.” So he gets to be scapegoated for whatever did or did not happen while the league gets to cite Bountygate as a shining example of its ongoing concern for player safety.
The message is probably being spread through league-approved channels right now that really, deep down, the bounty scandal was about trying to step in and protect players from themselves. It is all part of the bigger message the league is trying to sell: The game is not dangerous in and of itself. The problems are the bounties and rogue coaches and kickoffs.
What interesting timing, huh? Talk of abolishing kickoffs just happening to surface as the league grapples with one Cowboys player dead, another charged with intoxication manslaughter in his death and real questions about what, if any, role concussions played in a murder-suicide involving a Chiefs player. These are just the past two weeks.
There is still an army of former players lawyering up and ready to testify that football left their bodies broken and their brains scrambled. The fight now is about what the NFL knew and when it knew. There are fights about insurance coverage and payments and plausible deniability and personal responsibility and whether the game was worth it. The very survival of the league is about to go on trial publicly, and Goodell was in a pissing match with Vilma.
So Tags did not rebuke him. He saved him.
It would not surprise me at all if this was their plan, if Roger signed off on it. I am not saying they conspired, merely that it would not surprise me. Tags and Roger, at their very core, believe in the first rule of NFL Commissioner Club:
Don’t endanger The Shield.
It was just a happy coincidence that in doing so, the right thing was done for those Saints players.