Bountygate – Tagliabue sticks it to Goodell

Former National Football League commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent a message to his successor Roger Goodell Tuesday ruling Goodell was wrong in penalizing four members of the New Orleans Saints in the celebrated “bounty” case. Tagliabue vacated the fines and game suspensions Goodell had levied against Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. Tagliabue did suggest if any responsibility were to be accessed; the Saints coaches and management are at fault.

“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.’’

Tagliabue’s ruling which the National Football League won’t appeal is a blow to Goodell’s credibility as commissioner and a bitter pill for the man who replaced Tagliabue in 2006 as commissioner.

Here's what NFL spokesman Greg Aiello wrote on Tagliabue's decision via Twitter on Tuesday afternoon: "Tagliabue affirms factual findings of Commissioner Goodell concludes Hargrove, Smith, Vilma 'engaged in conduct detrimental' and vacates all player discipline."

The well respected Aiello can spin this however he wishes but Tagliabue’s ruling will make it next to impossible for Goodell to use his iron fist if he is presented with a similar situation in dealing with NFL players who step over the line. The message Tagliabue sent to Goodell his protégé is clear – you judged far too quickly far too harshly in deciding how the players the NFL believes were at the center of the New Orleans Saints bounty program were dealt with.

"Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects. My (Tagliabue) affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.

"Having reviewed the testimony very carefully, including documentary evidence that is at the center of the conflict, and having assessed the credibility of the four central witnesses on these matters, I find there is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty (on Brett Favre)."

What Tagliabue made clear in his ruling Tuesday – coaches and management determine what players do on a football field. Tagliabue suggested the four players Goodell punished were simply doing what their coaches demanded they do.

Here's the NFL statement on Tagliabue's decision: "We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters. This matter has now been reviewed by Commissioner Goodell, two CBA grievance arbitrators, the CBA Appeals Panel, and Mr. Tagliabue as Commissioner Goodell's designated appeals officer.

"The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the CBA to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."

The NFLPA's statement said, "We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result. We are pleased that Paul Tagliabue, as the appointed hearings officer, agreed with the NFL Players Association that previously issued discipline was inappropriate in the matter of the alleged New Orleans Saints bounty program.

"Vacating all discipline affirms the players' unwavering position that all allegations the League made about their alleged 'intent-to-injure' were utterly and completely false. We are happy for our members."

The blame for the Saints hit for hire program – is on the team’s head coach Sean Peyton suspended for the entire 2012 season (along with his $7 million salary) and the team’s former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams who remains suspended indefinitely by the National Football League. Before his indefinite suspension began, Williams had been hired by the St. Louis Rams as their defensive coordinator. Technically the Rams have yet to fire (or pay) Williams.

Gregg Williams has been at the center of similar bounty programs throughout the 22 years he worked as a National Football League coach.

Williams began his NFL career as a member of the Houston Oilers staff in 1990, working with the Oilers staying with the organization when they became the Tennessee Titans through the 2000 season. After 11 years as an NFL assistant coach, Williams was the Buffalo Bills head coach from 2001 to 2003. After being fired by the Bills after the 2003 season, Williams again became an NFL assistant coach this time with the Washington Redskins from 2004 through 2007. In 2008, Williams worked with the Jacksonville Jaguars. From 2009 through 2011, he was the New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator, the position he currently holds with the St. Louis Rams.

Williams apologized for the Saints' bounty program in a statement released in March when Goodell announced Williams and Peyton’s suspension.

"It was a terrible mistake, and we knew it was wrong while we were doing it," Williams said in March. "Instead of getting caught up in it, I should have stopped it. I take full responsibility for my role. I am truly sorry."

Given that Williams may have broken the NFL’s bounty rule throughout his NFL coaching career the apology seemed as hollow in March as it does today. The New York Times profiled Williams as a coach who preached violence and rewarded it for years.

“It was a thing where veterans and guys on defense always put up money for things that might change the game — hard hits, interceptions, sacks,” Josh Evans, who played for Williams in 1995, told the New York Times in March. “I have never known Gregg to say, ‘Try to hurt somebody.’ Guys were rewarded for making a big play or a hard hit. He probably knew. I don’t think he went against it.

“It’s just different times now because back in the day this stuff was part of football and nobody ever went out to try to end a guy’s career, because we all had families. But I would be lying if I said you didn’t want to knock a guy’s butt off.”

Football is a violent sport, a sport that has often been compared to war. The reports if true suggest that Williams coaching philosophy violated the NFL’s bounty rule throughout his 22 years NFL coaching career.

“I have no idea what was going on in Washington,” Tony Dungy, now an NBC analyst, told the New York Times in March. “I do know in Tennessee they definitely had bounties. We had players that went there in free agency; we had some of their players who came to us as free agents who told us. You can draw your own conclusions from that.”

Former safety, Coy Wire, told The Buffalo News after he joined the Bills in 2002, that an environment of "malicious intent" was in place (Williams was the Bills head coach).

"That's real," Wire said by phone from Atlanta. "That happened in Buffalo.

"There were rewards. There never was a point where cash was handed out in front of the team. But surely, you were going to be rewarded. When somebody made a big hit that hurt an opponent, it was commended and encouraged."

The Washington Post reported in March that while Williams was with the Redskins between 2004 and 2007, thousands of dollars were paid to members of the Redskins for knocking opponents out of games.

“You got compensated more for a kill shot than you did other hits,” said one former Redskins player, who spoke on condition of anonymity in the Washington Post report.

“It was a motivational tool, just like anything you would try to do as a coach to get the most out of players,” the former coach said. “The only thing was, money was involved.”

Sean Peyton will return to the National Football League once his suspension ends (on February 4, 2013 the day after the Super Bowl). Williams is likely finished as a National Football League coach. Paul Tagliabue cleared the four players; he suggested the Saints coaches and management had failed both the National Football League and the Saints players. Peyton led the Saints to a Super Bowl, regardless of his role in the bounty program he’ll coach again. Williams clearly is someone who believes in doing whatever it takes to win football games, regardless of the costs, pain and hurt the players he coaches inflict on others – men like that have no place coaching in the National Football League or in organized sports.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom