Roger Goodell is pointing to the scoreboard and claiming he won. The scoreboard says otherwise. Me, I'm going with the scoreboard.
Goodell lost Tuesday. He had suspended several Saints, most notably linebacker Jonathan Vilma, for New Orleans' bounty scheme. The players appealed, twice. In the second appeal, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue ruled that the players were simply following orders, and he vacated the suspensions.
Yes, Vilma went from a one-year suspension to -- poof! -- nothing. Tagliabue also referred to his "affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings," and Goodell can say, "See! I was right! I was right!" But the complete sentence is actually quite damning for Goodell:
"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines."
In other words: Even if Goodell were right about everything, the suspensions were way out of line. These were fine-able offenses, and Goodell issued enormous suspensions instead. This is what a good man does when he has too much power, and he knows it. He uses it.
Goodell can claim he was right about the Saints, and right about their bounty program. But he was wrong in a much bigger and more important way. He was wrong in how he pursued the case.
Look: If you have followed the case at all in the last few months -- and you aren't a Saints fan and your name is not Roger Goodell -- you reached two conclusions:
1. The Saints went too far.
There is plenty of evidence for this, especially that tape of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams screaming in the locker room, then taking his defensive players to a restaurant and ordering the Fried Brett Favre Head.
2. Goodell botched this.
Think about this. If you were in the commissioner's spot, and your sole goal was justice, what would you do? First you gather evidence, then you hear everybody's side, then you reach your verdict. This is how justice is achieved.
The problem is that Goodell skipped the second step. He didn't hear what the players had to say. He didn't let them see the evidence. He made bold public statements -- sometimes I can't tell if his title is commissioner or sheriff.
KING: Tagliabue ruling points finger at Saints organization, coaches
BURKE: Bounty ruling a hollow victory for struggling Saints
This is why so many players don't trust their commissioner. He is too interested in hosting The Roger Goodell Show, and the plot never changes: the players are the villains, and the commissioner is just trying to do the right thing.
This is exactly how the NFL has approached its concussion crisis: The league is worried about safety, but those darn players just keep hitting each other too hard.
And in the case of the Saints, Goodell could never reach the conclusion that Tagliabue reached. He could never blame the organization and say the players were simply following orders. Sure, that is how football teams have operated for decades. But Goodell prefers a different story.
Evidently, Tagliabue understands. That will surprise a lot of people who figured Tagliabue was just there to make Goodell look good. But I can tell you one man who isn't surprised:
He is Vilma's lawyer. He has dealt with the NFL for many years. Over the summer I asked him about Tagliabue and Goodell.
"My experience was that, though I didn't always agree, that commissioner Tagliabue administered the NFL with an appreciation for NFL players as well as an appreciation for their rights," Ginsberg told me. "He cared about individuals. My sense is there has been a fundamental change in priority and sensitivity when it comes to respecting the players and safeguarding principles other than the NFL's bottom line.
And how about Goodell?
"I found him to be judgmental and unwilling to listen to ideas that were not consistent with his own predisposition," Ginsberg said. "The commissioner was judgmental and so publicly outspoken that it was virtually impossible to feel there could be any constructive dialogue or listen and learn about what really happened and didn't happen."
Yes, yes, I know: Ginsberg is Vilma's lawyer. This is what lawyers do. They attack the other side. They say their client was wrongfully targeted, that investigations were unfair, that the evidence is overblown ... I understand, OK? My TV gets the same shows that yours does.
But in this case, I think Ginsberg is absolutely right. Didn't Vilma deserve to see the evidence against him? Didn't he have a right to process the charges, then respond to them? Isn't that how we would want all of our bosses to act?
Roger Goodell lost this round. I hope he understands why.