In what may be the biggest upset that the NFL will see in the opening week of its 2012 regular season, a three person appeals panel overturned the suspensions handed down by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in the New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” scandal. The decision is a major blow to Goodell and his seeming omnipotence concerning discipline of NFL players.
The move clears the way for Will Smith, Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove to play immediately instead of serving the suspensions that they were originally given. Smith and Vilma are still members of the Saints, Fujita’s been a member of the Browns since 2010 and Hargrove is a free agent after being cut during preseason. It’s important to note that the ruling did not affect the suspensions of Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, head coach Sean Payton or assistant Joe Vitt.
The Bountygate scandal that unfolded found that former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams led a bounty program with other coaches and players that paid for hits that injured opposing players from 2009 to 2011. They found bounties were specifically set for quarterbacks Brett Favre in 2009 and Kurt Warner in 2010. Audio footage from last season’s playoff loss to San Francisco mentioned Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree, along with potential target points. After this, Williams was suspended indefinitely in addition to the other penalties mentioned.
The NFLPA filed a grievance about this in May, stating that system arbitrator Stephen Burbank, not Goodell, should have been the one dealing with the punishment handed out. On June 4, Burbank sided with the NFL, stating that the issues involved with Bountygate fell under Goodell’s domain and not his own. Following that decision, the NFLPA appealed.
In the four page decision given by the board and signed by Richard J. Holwell, the panel seemed to muddy the waters further than before. While they agreed that Goodell had the ability to hand out punishments based on the premise of “conduct detrimental to the integrity or public confidence of professional football,” in this case the intent to injure, he did not have the ability to punish based on non-contract payments or bounties. The panel did not discuss the veracity of the investigation; it merely determined that Goodell overstepped his proverbial boundaries as a disciplinarian.
The battle is not over. In its ruling, the panel stated that they would “remand the matter directly to the Commissioner for expeditious redetermination.” Goodell stated that the rehearing of the case will be in the near future. If Goodell’s punishments handed out originally were based on the bounties being paid, he’d have to let it go. That would fall to Burbank and in the collective bargaining agreement; fines are the only punishment for such an offense.
The players are at a crossroads too. Goodell’s next ruling is final, with no recourse available to players. They likely will keep their current lawsuit in front of Judge Helen Berrigan. The alternative is the two sides reach a compromise, though that seems unlikely.
Do you think the panel made the right decision?