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Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Bounty case was an easy call

By Lester Munson
ESPN.com

In 22 single-spaced pages of pedantic, pretentious and occasionally patronizing prose, Paul Tagliabue blames the New Orleans Saints coaches for everything in the bounty scandal and offers his own unique ideas on the theory and practice of player discipline.

Reviewing the endless series of decisions that commissioner Roger Goodell has made in the bounty scandal, the best that Tagliabue could say about his successor as the commissioner of the world's most successful sports enterprise was that Goodell "correctly set out aggressively to address" the situation. It was only after Goodell had initially addressed the problem that he went wrong, according to Tagliabue.

Goodell's suspensions of four players, Tagliabue concluded, were "selective, ad hoc, or inconsistent." Those Tagliabue adjectives translate into the following: Tagliabue thinks Goodell punished some players and not others, that he made up new punishments as he went along, and that he was tougher on some players than he was on other players.

Tagliabue not only questions the equity of the punishments, he suggests that the better course would have been no punishment at all.

Pontificating from his 40 years of work with the NFL (17 of them as its commissioner), Tagliabue asserts that Goodell's draconian punishments of four Saints players have become an "impediment" to player safety and will never be the enhancement to player safety that Goodell sought.

Tagliabue's years as a student at Georgetown are apparent as he contemplates the nature of player misconduct and punishment.

What should Goodell have done? For a precedent, attorney Tagliabue reaches back into the regime of Pete Rozelle and the advent of steroid use among NFL players. Instead of pounding the players with immediate suspensions, Goodell should have engaged in what Tagliabue calls a "discipline-free transition year" as a way to prepare the players for severe punishments that would end bounties.

Apparently relishing his role as the league's wise man, Tagliabue says: "Rozelle understood that sometimes it is necessary to clarify the rules -- make sure everyone understands; postpone discipline for a while, not forever, but maybe for a season; and then enforce the rules with strict discipline."

Tagliabue ignores that Goodell made early attempts to persuade the Saints coaches to terminate their pay-for-performance program and punished the coaches and the players only after they persisted with bounties and lied to the NFL about what they were doing. Goodell, without any advice from Tagliabue at the time, tried a discipline-free season, and the Saints organization used it to make things worse during a Super Bowl season.

In addition to his theories on the nature of discipline, Tagliabue placed the blame for the Saints bounty program on the coaching staff and suggested that the players "may not have had much choice but to 'go along,' [and] to comply with coaching demands or directions that they may question or resent."

Tagliabue was unrelenting in his criticism of suspended head coach Sean Payton and indefinitely suspended former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, even though their suspensions were not part of the appeal that he was considering. He cited a coaches' PowerPoint presentation after the Saints' victory over the Cardinals in the 2009 playoffs. One slide showed Kurt Warner on the turf with the caption: "SO WE WILL JUST DESTROY EACH QUARTERBACK LEAVING EACH TEAM WITHOUT A FIELD GENERAL! ONE DOWN TWO QBs TO GO."

Tagliabue also included a description of another slide used in another presentation after the NFC Championship Game of Warner again on the ground with the caption: "BOO [expletive] HOO MISSION ACCOMPLISHED VS. WARNER AND FAVRE."

The former commissioner described the coaches' presentation as showing "persistent and flagrant contempt for clear [NFL] rules and policies regarding player safety."

If these slides are what the coaches were showing the Saints players, exhorting them to injure the opposing quarterback, as Tagliabue suggested, it is difficult to blame and to discipline the players. Players understand, according to Tagliabue, that with coaches it can "be my way or the highway" and that "George Halas and Vince Lombardi are not glorified or remembered because they offered players freedom of choice."

Tagliabue was also incensed with the "massive efforts" of Saints coaches "to obstruct the league's investigation," their "destroying of documents," and their attempts to have "coaches, players, and other representatives lie to League investigators and otherwise be uncooperative."

Both former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo and Williams testified before Tagliabue that they destroyed a series of PowerPoint slides that showed payouts to players and destroyed other evidence. It was part of a "conscious decision to deny, deny, deny," according to Tagliabue.

In his suspensions of Saints players, Goodell relied on two factors: their importance as team leaders (Will Smith) and the speeches made (Jonathan Vilma) to their teammates before the NFC Championship Game. Tagliabue was not happy with Goodell's reasoning.

"I am not aware of previous league discipline that rested on whether or not a player was a team leader," Tagliabue said. In his condescending manner, he acknowledged that "it may indeed be very constructive, in this and other contexts, to expect team captains, other team leaders, or even players with years of seniority to meet high standards of responsibility for team conduct," but "this is a concept that would require in-depth discussion with coaches and players."

Addressing Goodell's finding that Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who would knock Favre out of the Vikings game, he said it was just "talk" and Vilma was "not being punished for his performance on the field."

And then Tagliabue reached his highest level of pedantry and pretension with, "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 involved the kind of player misconduct that it desires to interdict."

Tagliabue's decision and his supporting opinion are the latest installment in one of the most bizarre chapters in the history of a league that has thrived with heroic players, solid leadership and lucrative television contracts, and now finds itself watching its former commissioner snipe at its current commissioner on a discipline case that should have been easy.

When will it end?