There are differing views on the importance of Roger Goodell's decision to appoint former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to preside over appeals in the New Orleans Saints bounty case. It can be seen as anything from a game-changing decision to "nothing to see here" business as usual. Let's look at the impact in resolving this long-running saga.
Dealing with "conduct detrimental" has been a priority for Goodell since he first took office in 2006. Although owners have led the way on many of the league's profitability and financial issues -- such as the player and referee lockouts -- the conduct issue is Goodell's signature. He has shown a strong personal stake in holding players to a set of high standards and successfully fought off the NFLPA's desire for him to cede power over player conduct to an independent arbitrator in last year's labor negotiations.
The bounty allegations, as Goodell has maintained from the beginning, fall squarely in the "conduct detrimental" arena. Although he was admonished by the appeals panel to not veer off into disciplining for noncontract payments, his most recent discipline made clear this is about conduct, not contracts.
For this reason, turning over adjudication of this matter at this late stage to anyone -- even the former commissioner -- is a big deal.
NFLPA still unhappy
Goodell's power allows him to designate a hearing officer for "conduct detrimental" appeals, and he has previously done so with league vice presidents Jeff Pash and Harold Henderson. The process, outlined in the collective bargaining agreement, requires "consultation with the Executive Director of the NFLPA." NFLPA head DeMaurice Smith broke the news of Tagliabue's appointment via Twitter on Friday, so it seems clear he was consulted.
The NFLPA made it a priority in the CBA negotiations to remove Goodell from this role, noting that he had to be reined in from arbitrary and capricious discipline. After failing to change his power as "judge and jury" through collective bargaining and subsequent arbitrations, the players' union took the matter to court and railed against the internal appeals process. After court motions and impassioned statements about Goodell's inherent bias, the commissioner relented and removed himself. Now Tagliabue is the target of bias claims with Wednesday's NFLPA court filing asking for his recusal. The NFL response is due Friday.
One has to wonder whom the union expected Goodell to appoint. Did it think that he would choose someone from the labor rather than management side? Would the NFLPA prefer Goodell appoint one of his deputies, as he has in the past? Perhaps the claims are all posturing in the event the players do not get the result they want, but these moves are curious.
Tagliabue's appointment is better for all sides than if Goodell had appointed Pash or Henderson. Although all are accomplished lawyers and experienced hearing officers, Pash and Henderson are league employees with inherent allegiance to Goodell. The fact that the old boss now steps in for the new boss was a necessary and important step for Goodell.
As a team executive under the leadership of both commissioners, I noticed a radical change toward player misconduct when Goodell succeeded Tagliabue.
Under Tagliabue's leadership, we knew misbehaving players would not be disciplined until the situation had moved through the legal process, no matter the delay. In contrast, Goodell is not content to wait for legal maneuvering before imposing discipline, often relying on police reports and his own investigations. The two men's different styles reflect their backgrounds.
Tagliabue -- assuming he does hear this appeal -- will be measured, analytical and thoughtful in his decision-making. Although this is not a court proceeding, he will demand evidence that is supported by facts and exhibits and he will not let loose comments by the attorneys or witnesses slide without further explanation. He will be meticulous and pay attention to detail, consistent with his legal background.
And with Vilma v. Goodell on hold in New Orleans, Tagliabue knows that U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan is waiting and watching. The fact that Tagliabue was appointed to begin with should alleviate some of Berrigan's concerns and provides another layer of "process" that the players -- and their roster of attorneys -- will have difficulty complaining about.
What will happen?
It is important to note that Goodell has already reduced elements of these suspensions from their original status, returning more than $1 million combined to the pockets of Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita. The league will stress that recent reduction of suspensions.
Although I don't think Tagliabue will alter the course of what has happened in the past six months, I believe there is a chance for further reduction of suspensions and the possibility that Fujita's penalty may be only fines.
Tagliabue's appointment should move this saga closer to final resolution ... we hope.
From the mailbag
Q: What do you think of the Browns selling for $1 billion?
Jeff in Erie, Pa.
A: As the sale was approved, I pictured other owners with one of those cartoon bubbles over their heads thinking, "If Randy Lerner can get a billion, wonder what I could get?" There were smiles from ear to ear at the knowledge that the asset value of these franchises continues to head north at dizzying rates.
Forbes' recent NFL team valuations had 20 teams ranked ahead of the Browns, led by the Dallas Cowboys with an estimated value of more than $2 billion. Of the teams ranked lower than the Browns, most -- Vikings, Chargers, Falcons, Raiders, Rams, Jaguars -- are teams with new stadiums yet to come online or are still determining their stadium situations. Stadium economics are an important equation in team revenues and valuations.
With player costs low, a new 10-year CBA in place with the players, and record television contracts yet to kick in, these are salad days for NFL owners. Teams that cost $100 million a decade ago now sell for 10 times that amount.
Q: What can Browns fans expect with Joe Banner becoming CEO of the team?
Bill in Cleveland
A: Banner -- replacing Mike Holmgren, miscast in the role of team president -- brings considerable intellectual horsepower. He enjoys a good parry and is not afraid to take on agents who have priced their players unreasonably.
Working alongside coach/general manager Andy Reid -- who needed players to like and trust him -- Banner wore the black hat in Philadelphia. I can relate; I worked alongside a coach/general manager -- Mike Sherman in Green Bay -- and I would play the "bad guy" role at times. Banner will probably set up a different structure in Cleveland and perhaps even show a softer side that was largely hidden in Philadelphia.