SBD/December 12, 2012/Leagues and Governing Bodies

Tagliabue Overturns Suspensions In Saints Bounty Case, Upholds Goodell's Findings

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Tagliabue's ruling may bolster the accused Saints players' litigation opportunities
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue made a “drastic change in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal Tuesday as the NFL announced all suspensions and penalties” for the players allegedly involved in the team’s bounty scandal -- LB Jonathan Vilma, DE Will Smith, LB Scott Fujita and DL Anthony Hargrove -- have “been vacated,” according to a front-page piece by Larry Holder of the New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE. Tagliabue chose “not to uphold any of the punishments” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell re-issued “several months ago after the first penalties were also vacated.” Tagliabue painted the Saints' organization “as the most to blame for the bounty program rather than the players.” The NFL was "staunch" in promoting Tagliabue's decision. The league said Tagliabue's decision, which “affirms factual findings of Commissioner Goodell, concludes Hargrove, Smith, Vilma 'engaged in conduct detrimental.'" Tagliabue also said there is "more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty (on Brett Favre)." Tulane Sports Law Program Dir Gabe Feldman said the decision is "creative in that it's essentially a complete victory for the players, and yet it allows the league to save face” (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 12/12). In N.Y., Judy Battista writes Tagliabue’s decision “made clear that he thought Goodell overreached when disciplining the players” (N.Y. TIMES, 12/12). The AP’s Jim Litke writes under the header, “Tagliabue Shows Goodell How It’s Done.” Tagliabue's reasoning was “torturous, but the result was fair.” He decided Vilma, Smith and Hargrove “had suffered enough,” and he “cleared Scott Fujita, who'd maintained his innocence all along.” Litke: “Just as important, Tagliabue affirmed current Commissioner Roger Goodell's findings of fact in the case.” Tagliabue knew his successor “didn't need any more challenges to his reputation or authority at the moment” (AP, 12/12).

SIMILAR TO A SETTLEMENT: NFL Network’s Albert Breer said the “best way to look at this is as a settlement.” Tagliabue’s background is as a lawyer, so he is "trying to get both sides to walk away and end this entire case.” Breer said for the NFL, the ruling “validates their process and it proves in fact that they were correct in a lot of the things they claimed against the four players” (“NFL Total Access,” NFL Network, 12/11). In New Orleans, Jeff Duncan writes Tagliabue “leaned heavily on common sense, which has been in woefully short supply by both sides from the outset.” Duncan: “He's essentially saying to Goodell, the damage is done, your point's been made, bounties have effectively been eliminated forever, now let's end this mess before the Super Bowl kicks off in February.” Goodell either “needed to punish everyone involved or no one.” Duncan: “You can't pick and choose when meting out such severe penalties. In this instance, Tagliabue chose the latter” (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 12/12). SPORTS ON EARTH’s Mike Tanier wrote this was the “first time that common sense has reared its head in the Saints bounty scandal since we first heard that Williams liked to give violently-specific speeches” (SPORTSONEARTH.com, 12/11). In New Orleans, Mike Triplett writes Tagliabue “got almost everything right Tuesday.” He handled the bounty case “with the kind of common sense, reasonable judgment and shrewd desire to wrap everything up in a nice, neat bow that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell never came close to approaching.” In the “Commissioner Bowl, Goodell was routed by the old boss” (New Orleans TIMES-PICAYUNE, 12/12).YAHOO SPORTS’ Jason Cole noted some people will look at the decision as “clever lawyering on Tagliabue's part, a way for him to get rid of the player penalties while keeping Goodell on firm legal ground as he faces a defamation lawsuit from Vilma.” But if you “look deeper into this, Tagliabue basically blamed everybody.” At a time when both the league and the players “had a great chance to repudiate the game's dirty side, they wasted an opportunity” (SPORTS.YAHOO.com, 12/11).
 
BACK TO COURT? USA TODAY’s Mike Garafolo notes Vilma now “has the ammo and the willingness to move forward in his defamation lawsuit” against Goodell. Vilma’s attorney Peter Ginsberg yesterday said he and his client were “definitely going full force ... a hundred percent.” Ginsberg added that Vilma “would not withdraw the motions to depose Goodell and gather information the league compiled on discovery because, while Tagliabue vacated Vilma’s suspension, he affirmed that the information Goodell collected on the bounty situation was accurate” (USA TODAY, 12/12). CBSSPORTS.com’s Jason La Canfora noted Tagliabue “may have bolstered the case for additional litigation in this case.” Sources indicated that Fujita and Hargrove “could end up pursuing lawsuits similar" to Vilma's case (CBSSPORTS.com, 12/11). FOXSPORTS.com’s Jen Floyd Engel writes Tagliabue’s ruling was not "a rebuke" of Goodell, but he instead "saved" the commissioner. Engel: “He saved The League, protected The Shield ... by insulating the league from a Jonathan Vilma defamation lawsuit.” NFL VP/Communications Brian McCarthy yesterday tweeted, “Tagliabue says he wanted to resolve matter completely so NFL and NFLPA can move on to address player safety issues.” Engel: “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” (FOXSPORTS.com 12/12).

TIME TO MOVE ON: ESPN’s Tony Kornheiser said, "I think Tagliabue sat in a room and he said, ‘You know what, I can't defend the ‘shield’ this way. This is no good. We have killed the Saints already. This has dragged on forever. I want out of this. I want this to end and let's move on because it's killing us’” (“PTI,” ESPN, 12/11). ESPN's Jackie MacMullan said, "This Bountygate is a problem that the NFL wants to go away and as a former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue totally gets that" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 12/11). SI.com’s Peter King wrote on “first read, it's a smart decision designed to make this case go away after the eight-month-long black eye it gave the league” (SI.com, 12/11). The Chicago Tribune’s Fred Mitchell said Tagliabue’s ruling was a “very nice attorney’s move as far as making both sides feel okay about what happened.” The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs said, “You just hope that sooner rather than later this whole thing will be behind the league” (“Chicago Tribune Live,” Comcast SportsNet Chicago, 12/11).

KNOCK TO GOODELL'S REPUTATION: ESPN's Dan Le Batard said Tagliabue's decision is an "embarrassment for Roger Goodell, and this is the first dent in his omnipotence that we’ve ever seen” (“Dan Le Batard Is Highly Questionable,” ESPN2, 12/11). In Tampa, Gary Shelton writes Goodell "looks much less powerful today than he did yesterday" (TAMPA BAY TIMES, 12/12). ESPN L.A.'s J.A. Adande said, "You wonder what authority Goodell is going to have in the future and if other players are going to feel empowered to challenge Goodell?" ("Around The Horn," ESPN, 12/11). SI.com’s Michael Rosenberg wrote Goodell “lost” yesterday. He can “claim he was right about the Saints, and right about their bounty program,” But Goodell was “wrong in a much bigger and more important way,” as he was “wrong in how he pursued the case” (SI.com, 12/11). ESPN’s Jalen Rose said the ruling is a “huge loss for the commissioner. ‘Open mouth, insert foot’ is the best way I could put it. He got this one all the way wrong” (“Numbers Never Lie,” ESPN2, 12/11). ESPN's John Clayton said, “The players were the big victors and the commissioner and the National Football League the losers in this case” ("SportsCenter," ESPN, 12/11).

GOING TOO FAR WITH HIS POWER: In N.Y., Mark Cannizzaro writes the ruling “surely was not a win for Goodell, whose reputation as a tough-guy disciplinarian took a major hit.” Goodell has been “widely criticized by players for the way he acts as judge-and-jury in these matters, and this ruling shows that he reacted too swiftly and strongly with his suspensions” (N.Y. POST, 12/12). SPORTING NEWS’ David Steele wrote, “Tagliabue made it plain about his former protégé: You went too far. You overstepped your bounds. You abused your power. You are guilty of first-degree arrogance and gross pomposity” (SPORTINGNEWS.com, 12/11). PRO FOOTBALL TALK’s Mike Florio noted “portions of the text crafted carefully by Tagliabue suggest a passive-aggressive effort to send an unmistakable message” to Goodell. Tagliabue is telling Goodell “he shouldn’t have tried to defuse a time bomb with a hammer” (PROFOOTBALLTALK.com, 12/11). N.Y. Daily News’ John Harper said Goodell “comes off looking like this guy who is a control freak who wants to be in charge without regard for due process” (“Daily News Live,” SportsNet N.Y., 12/11).

ALL'S NOT LOST: ESPN's Andrew Brandt said the decision was "damning," but added Goodell’s “'conduct detrimental’ powers are not lessened” because of Tagliabue's ruling ("Outside The Lines," ESPN, 12/11). In L.A., Sam Farmer writes Goodell “had his hand slapped in a public way, but little more,” as he “probably knew what the outcome would be” (L.A. TIMES, 12/12).
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