Is bounty scandal far from finished?
Goodell's new rulings could be just the beginning of more legal wrangling
On Tuesday, Commissioner Roger Goodell reissued punishments in the Saints' bounty case. While the four-game suspension for Will Smith stands, Scott Fujita's suspension was reduced from three games to one, and Anthony Hargrove's suspension from eight games to seven. Jonathan Vilma's yearlong suspension will continue; however, he will be permitted to collect paychecks for the first six weeks of the season while on the physically unable to perform list.
About a month ago, the newly formed NFL Appeals Panel overturned the initial suspensions meted out by Goodell, explaining that the bounty program encompassed both undisclosed payments in violation of the salary cap, which is conduct within System Arbitrator Stephen Burbank's province, and evidence of an intent to injure, "conduct detrimental" which is under Goodell's exclusive jurisdiction.
The Panel sent the case back for "expeditious redetermination," asking Goodell to clarify whether any portion of the penalties were attributable to illegal payments.
In a carefully crafted memorandum, Goodell emphatically reasserted his collectively bargained authority over conduct which threatens the integrity of the game and player safety.
He was cautious to note discipline was solely for "conduct detrimental," not undisclosed payments: "The four disciplined players either were involved in specific bounties on an opposing player, contributed substantially to the bounty program, engaged in payments that violated League rules or were untruthful when the program was initially investigated."
The NFL also disseminated two PowerPoint presentations that included 70 pages of previously unreleased evidence.
What to think
Although there is some relief here, primarily financial for Vilma ($570,000) and Fujita ($429,000), this is more of the same. Goodell and his league operatives are not backing down on their strongly held beliefs and opinions that this conduct -- whether bounties, pay to injure, pay to perform, intent to injure, etc. -- is detrimental to the integrity of the game and the tenet of player health and safety.
As to the latter, no discipline is done in a vacuum. Throughout the time that Goodell has been ruling on this issue, thousands of plaintiffs filing concussion lawsuits have circled the league, contesting the very health and safety measures that Goodell is vigorously protecting. It is impossible to view the bounty discipline without that context.
And my enduring thoughts harken back to collective bargaining a year ago. The NFLPA initially was dead set on reining in the player conduct powers of Goodell, who they felt had clearly jumped the shark with overzealous discipline.
Priorities change; I get it, but Goodell's powers remain unchanged. The union continues to rail against the quality and quantity of evidence, but this is not a court of law. It is a court of Goodell, one approved and sanctioned by the players. That said, Goodell could have and should have showed more transparency in his evidence before now.
Where do we go?
As per the CBA, the players have three days to appeal to -- you guessed it -- Commissioner Goodell for a hearing. The players' suspensions will be delayed pending the appeal. However futile that appeal process may seem, I expect the players to pursue it to show they are exhausting their CBA remedies. And I expect Judge Goodell will uphold his ruling from today.
Once the players' appeal is denied, we are likely back to "courtroom football." Judge Helen Berrigan, overseeing the now-dormant federal lawsuit against Goodell in New Orleans, looms. With a harsh statement from the NFLPA and similar statements likely to come from the players and their attorneys, I expect the players to continue to pursue a preliminary injunction in court.
Perhaps out of eternal optimism or na´vetÚ, I still believe there is hope for a negotiated settlement. Goodell's latest suspensions can be seen, even at this late date, as an "opening offer" for players and their lawyers to return with a counteroffer. The players' leverage is to keep the matter lingering in a courtroom in New Orleans, the site of the league's biggest event, the Super Bowl.
There will be lawyers.
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