This was the last thing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell wanted to hear. It was the only thing NFL players wanted to see. For years, the men who play the game at football's highest level had complained about what they considered Goodell's abusive power. On Friday, the commissioner received ample reason to reconsider how he's been conducting business.
This isn't about heated tweets or unfiltered outrage from disgruntled veterans. It's about a decision handed down by a three-member appeals panel that reviewed Goodell's punishments of New Orleans Saints players in the infamous bounty scandal. Goodell had hammered key members within the organization, including suspending four defensive players associated with the 2009 team. Those players learned the panel overturned their suspensions, meaning Goodell has taken a massive punch in the gut.
Goodell's rationale in punishing the Saints has been told time and again. A bounty program the team had been running since 2009 angered him, and he wanted to send a message about the consequences of such actions. The first shoe dropped in March, when Goodell issued suspensions to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinite), head coach Sean Payton (one year), general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant Joe Vitt (six games). The other shoe hit the ground a couple of months later, as Goodell walloped linebacker Jonathan Vilma (one year), defensive end Will Smith (four games), and former Saints Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Scott Fujita (three games).
Those punishments given to the players always represented a precarious situation for the commissioner. The more reluctant he became to release the evidence behind his decisions, the more it seemed the players had a case worth fighting. Even with the admissions of Williams, Payton and Loomis, there was a vulnerable point in the NFL's investigation. The players could claim his allegations were baseless. Goodell could either expose his sources or stand pat behind his all-consuming power.
For the record, it's impossible to think the players weren't doing something that crossed the line. The confessions of Williams, Payton and Loomis point to that, and Goodell is smart enough to not take an investigation this far without being confident in his actions. The problem is, and always has been, proof. Unless the Saints were using Quicken to manage the money changing hands, there was no solid way to know who was paying into the bounty program and what they were endorsing. The only legitimate evidence Goodell likely had on that point had to come from confidential sources.
Nobody cares about such details today, though. The players pulled a major upset and left Goodell looking very much like the cruel tyrant some deem him to be. The league can consider its own legal moves at this stage, but there's no real value in that. It's best to settle this matter quickly rather than risk any further embarrassment resulting from sheer pride.
It's already fair to say this decision will have far-reaching ramifications for the NFL's player conduct policy. Goodell constantly has used the "integrity of the game" as the foundation for all decisions that relate to players who fall into trouble off the field. His belief is that he has the obligation to keep the game clean of issues that might scare off sponsors or alienate fans. It was a mindset the players embraced as well back in 2006, when problem children such as Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry and Tank Johnson couldn't stay on the right side of the law.
The NFL Players Association was far too willing to give Goodell that power in those days, and it has been paying for it ever since. Today, the players have the first significant victory in their battle to rein in the commissioner. Instead of simply accepting their punishments, future players have new options to contend with the league's power. If they're willing to go far enough, they might end up feeling as good as the Saints do right now.
The players' chief complaint always has been that Goodell is judge, jury and executioner. They might not have liked Goodell's rulings, but they were more miffed by the commissioner's overall system. If the commissioner were the man handing down the punishments, he shouldn't be the one hearing the appeals. It was a valid argument, one that gained more credibility with this latest decision.
The players have been waiting for this moment not only because of the players involved in this case. They wanted it because they believed a neutral observer would see the same issues they did. When players complain about a commissioner, it feels a little like high school students griping about the principal. When an impartial party decides somebody with Goodell's profile has erred -- and the panel said Goodell had overstepped his bounds by hearing the players' appeals -- it echoes for years. It tells us the commissioner really needs to check himself.
Of course, there will always be more to this story. You have three coaches and one general manager who are serving suspensions for their admitted misdeeds, and four players who are free to go as they please despite their alleged involvement in the matter. Goodell can do only so much about that going forward because he's seemingly fired every bullet in his holster. If he wanted to start revealing his sources, he'd be hard pressed to get anybody to help him with an investigation again.
The best he can do is let this day belong to the Saints, especially because they mastered the art of technicalities. As they say in court, it's not what you know; it's what you can prove. Goodell surely has heard that philosophy more times than he'd care to admit. Unfortunately for him, it also sums up exactly what happened in a case that made the most powerful man in sports look weaker than ever.