NFL walks away from Saints fight

December, 11, 2012
12/11/12
2:54
PM ET
Jonathan VilmaDerick E. Hingle/US PresswireJonathan Vilma and other players implicated in the Saints bounty scandal have had their penalties overturned by Paul Tagliabue.
Let me get this straight.

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has found that current commissioner Roger Goodell was spot on in his finding of facts in the New Orleans Saints bounty saga? But Tagliabue has vacated all player discipline?

That’s more than a little contradictory. In fact, it’s ridiculous.

Tagliabue is agreeing with Goodell that the Saints ran a bounty program for three years, but Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita no longer are facing suspensions.

Heck, they probably won't even face fines, unless Goodell oversteps Tagliabue -- but I think Goodell is planning on staying in his own lane now.

“My affirmation of commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,’’ Tagliabue said in part of his statement. “However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.’’

Sounds to me like Tagliabue and the NFL are taking the easy way out of this one. They’re pointing their fingers squarely at coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, general manager Mickey Loomis and assistant head coach Joe Vitt.

There’s one huge difference between the coaches and general manager and the four players: The players are represented by the NFL Players Association, which challenged every step of the process, even though you could make a case that the union was siding with the best interest of four players over the safety of hundreds of others.

The NFLPA appealed every decision, and it ultimately won. Vilma doesn’t have to face a season-long suspension. Smith doesn’t have to miss eight games. Hargrove, who is currently out of the league, doesn’t face a seven-game suspension. Fujita, who might have suffered a career-ending injury this season, doesn’t face a one-game suspension.

The league still is saying the players did what the league alleged from the start, and Tagliabue’s statement reiterates that he found convincing evidence that there was a bounty on Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC Championship Game of the 2009 season.

But the players aren’t getting suspended, they’re not losing paychecks and they’re not getting fined. They’re getting off pretty much free, except for whatever damage was done to their reputations by this whole sordid saga.

That damage was significant, and we might not have heard the last of it on that front. Vilma still has a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. If I’m Vilma, I’m not dropping that lawsuit.

Vilma has shown that you can take on what was supposed to be an almighty commissioner and win. It’s hard to win a defamation lawsuit because you have to prove intent to put out statements you knew were untrue, but Vilma is on a roll, so why not continue pursuing it?

Vilma’s attorney, Peter R. Ginsberg, already has said the defamation suit isn’t going away.

“We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension,’’ Ginsberg said in a statement. “On the other hand, commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day.’’

Maybe Vilma can get the NFL to keep backtracking and say there was no bounty on Favre, because it sure looks like the league doesn’t want to fight anymore.

Apparently, the league’s approach now is to just blame it all on Loomis, who already has served an eight-game suspension, and Vitt, who already has served a six-game suspension. And put even more blame on Payton, who is serving a season-long suspension, and Williams, who is banned indefinitely.

Those four are the easy targets because they exhausted their appeals long ago. The only option they had was to appeal their decision to one judge. That was Goodell, back in the spring, and he upheld his own punishments and the clock on those suspensions started ticking.

But the hands of the clock on player punishments were tied up by constant appeals and Vilma’s lawsuit.

Makes you wonder whether Payton, Loomis, Vitt and Williams might have taken a different tack if they knew in the spring what they know now.

There’s no absolute vindication for anyone because Tagliabue and the league still are saying the Saints ran a bounty program.

But one group of the alleged culprits is walking away without any punishment, and the other already has served or is serving its punishment.

That’s because the players fought it and, in the end, Tagliabue grabbed the NFL by its shoulders and pulled the league out of the fight.

Pat Yasinskas | email

ESPN Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter

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