In an unprecedented turn of events, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Friday that he has recused himself from hearing appeals in the Saints' bounty case, instead turning things over to former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
“To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter nor has he been any part of the process," Goodell said in a statement. "Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings. I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue’s decisions.”
Four players are awaiting appeals hearings in the case: Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Scott Fujita and Will Smith. Fujita and Hargrove recently had their initial suspensions reduced by Goodell (from three games to one and eight games to seven, respectively); Smith's punishment stayed at four games, while Vilma faces a year-long suspension.
Goodell's decision to step back from the proceedings counts as a small win for the players -- that Goodell hears appeals on penalties that he also hands down has long been a source of contention, reaching beyond just the bounty scandal.
The appointment of Tagliabue, however, may not change the situation as much as the players may want.
Tagliabue preceded Goodell as NFL commissioner, and the two enjoyed a very strong working relationship. In fact, Goodell received Tagliabue's seal of approval when he stepped in as commissioner. Tagliabue was also in office during the "Smash for Cash" program that was approved by the NFL.
SI.com legal analyst Michael McCann points out that "Tagliabue, for his part, is well-suited for a position of applying rules to player conduct. Unlike Goodell, Tagliabue is an attorney. While critics of Goodell regard him as overly-focused on business and marketing goals, Tagliabue has been viewed as valuing process, procedure and fairness – arguably to a fault. Recall that when Ray Lewis was charged with murder in 2000 and ultimately pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a murder case, Tagliabue declined to suspend him. At the time, Tagliabue, who fined Lewis $250,000, remarked “'It's the courts who have the primary responsibility in this case. We're not a substitute for the courts.” It is difficult to imagine Goodell making such a statement."
So, we'll have to wait to see how much Goodell's absence actually benefits the players in question. From the current commissioner's standpoint, this is pretty win-win. Either Tagliabue stands his ground and upholds Goodell's punishments -- thus re-emphasizing the job Goodell did in the first place -- or Tagliabue reduces the suspensions, allowing Goodell to wash his hands of the situation.
McCann notes that, "As a defendant in a federal lawsuit – Vilma v. Goodell – Goodell was placed in the awkward position of evaluating the conduct of a player who is suing Goodell. The basis of Vilma’s defamation lawsuit, moreover, centers on the same set of facts Goodell must consider in his review of Vilma. Even if Goodell could mentally separate the league’s internal review process from the litigation, he makes himself an easy target for accusations of conflict of interest. This is particularly a concern for Goodell and the NFL should Vilma’s lawsuit go to trial. If it does, Vilma’s attorneys could more easily portray Goodell as biased and unfair if he did not delegate this authority."
The swap of Goodell for Tagliabue apparently will, if nothing else, delay the latest round of appeals hearings. The players were expected to plead their cases again this coming Thursday; the NFL announced as part of Goodell's statement that the hearings would be pushed to Oct. 30. Those suspended players, then, can play this week and next as the process plays itself out.
That delay applies directly to Vilma and Smith. Vilma is expected to make his 2012 debut Sunday, when the Saints visit Tampa Bay. The linebacker had been on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list with a knee injury. Smith, meanwhile, has started all five Saints games so far.
Fujita is dealing with a shoulder/neck injury that will sideline him Sunday and may put his career in jeopardy. Hargrove remains a free agent (the NFL has counted his absences from game action while unsigned toward his suspension).
Regardless of the players' statuses, there is a great desire from both sides of the bounty issue to get things resolved once and for all. The shocking decision by Goodell to remove himself from the mix could move the needle. Whether or not that progress will benefit the players is in Tagliabue's hands.