Dec 112012

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was dealt a serious blow today when former Commissioner and current arbiter Paul Tagliabue determined that, while the New Orleans Saints were clearly operating a bounty program that was in violation of league rules, the case against the players was “contaminated” by Saints’ coaches and others, suggesting that any discipline beyond fines was unfair, and all discipline against individual players was vacated.

“Unlike Saints’ broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects,” Tagliabue said in a statement released by the league. “My 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.”

In response, the NFL issued a statement which said:

“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 (Roger) 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.”

Predictably, the NFLPA also issued a statement claiming victory, which rings closer to the truth than the NFL’s statement.

“We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result,” the statement said. “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.”

While the NFL is seeking to put a face of victory on this news, Goodell knows that this is a blow to his status as Commissioner. Tagliabue seems to try and let Goodell off the hook, while also trying not to help Jonathen Vilma’s defamation case against Goodell, by blaming those within the Saints’ organization for corrupting the case, but in truth the “we were just following orders” defense rings hollow; the reason that player discipline had to be vacated was because the Commissioner’s office botched the case, and Goodell himself acted as though he was accountable to no one.

In the end, it seems fair to conclude that a strong message has still been sent to all 32 teams that bounties will result in serious disciplinary action against the organization and its staff. It also seems fair to conclude that Roger Goodell will not be allowed to act as the tyrant that he has been trying to be. If the owners are smart, they will force the Commissioner’s office to develop better systems for the conduct of investigations and disciplinary proceedings, while looking for a successor to a flawed and damaged Commissioner.

Oct 092012

Commissioner Goodell has reaffirmed the suspension of four players for their connection to the bounty scandal in New Orleans. As noted on the NFL website, the decision is carefully crafted to focus on “conduct detrimental to football” and avoid any jurisdictional challenge from the players or from the NFL Player’s Association.

The complete release can be viewed here. Here is the shorter release, taken from the NFL website:

Discipline Reaffirmed for Four Players Suspended for Participation in Saints’ Bounty Program

Commissioner Roger Goodell reaffirmed the discipline for four players in the New Orleans Saints’ bounty matter today, but adjusted certain aspects of it following recent meetings with each of the players, the first time those players had agreed to speak directly to the NFL to give their side of the story.

In letters to each player and a memorandum to the clubs, Commissioner Goodell clarified that his decision was based entirely on his finding that the bounty program represented conduct detrimental to the league and professional football. The Saints’ bounty program operated over a three-year period and offered incentives to players for plays including “cart-offs” and “knock-outs,” which were plays that caused injuries to opponents.

The decision was made in response to the CBA Appeals Panel that asked Commissioner Goodell to make a redetermination of the discipline previously imposed on those players and clarify whether any of it was related to salary cap violations.
For decades, the commissioner of the NFL has been empowered, including in the Collective Bargaining Agreement with the players, to impose discipline on any individual employed by the NFL or its clubs that engages in specific conduct that he determines with due process to be conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the NFL. This responsibility was most recently affirmed in the 2011 CBA.

“The quality, specificity and scope of the evidence supporting the findings of conduct detrimental are far greater and more extensive than ordinarily available in such cases,” Goodell noted in a memorandum to the clubs.

“In my recent meetings with the players and their counsel, the players addressed the allegations and had an opportunity to tell their side of the story,” Goodell also wrote. “In those meetings, the players confirmed many of the key facts disclosed in our investigation, most particularly that the program offered cash rewards for ‘cart-offs,’ that players were encouraged to ‘crank up the John Deere tractor’ and have their opponents carted off the field, and that rewards were offered and paid for plays that resulted in opposing players having to leave the field of play.”

The NFL PA, of course, has already issued its response, stating “For more than six months, the NFL has ignored the facts, abused the process outlined in our collective bargaining agreement and failed to produce evidence that the players intended to injure anyone, ever. The only evidence that exists is the League’s gross violation of fair due process, transparency and impartiality during this process. Truth and fairness have been the casualties of the league’s refusal to admit that it might have made a mistake… We will review this decision thoroughly and review all options to protect our players’ rights with vigilance.”

Thus, here we go again. I have a distinct feeling this case will be dragging on even longer, and will get even uglier in a hurry.

Jun 052012

Well another labor dispute is Referees in a huddleback for the National Football League. This time it is with NFLRA. While I have applauded NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for his handling of player safety and the overall management of the game we all love, I simply do not understand his stance with NFL officials. How on earth can the NFL and the officials not come to an agreement? I will tell you, money! A multi-billion dollar league does not want to pay its officials. This is crazy. They are an extremely important part of the game and they deserve the money. Over the years, referees have been taxed with more and more responsibilities on the field of play. Not only are they needed to manage the game, but to also assess player safety.

This current labor dispute leads me to believe the NFL is going to have a multi-pronged media relations coup on its hands. Just wait for the first major blown call from a “scab” official. Not only will the “real” officials scream from the highest mountains, so to will players, media, and fans. I just don’t understand the NFL risking this because of money. The negative far outweighs the positive. It is quite clear that the NFLPA is already laying the foundation to making this matter a big deal. On Monday, the NFLPA weighed in on the issue with the following statement:

The NFL Players Association is concerned about the NFL’s decision to lock out professional referees and recruit scabs to serve as referees in NFL games for the 2012 season…In 2011, the NFL tasked officials with increased responsibilities in protecting player health and safety, and its search for scabs undermines that important function. Professional athletes require professional referees, and we believe in the NFL Referees Association’s trained first responders.  The NFLPA will continue to monitor the league’s actions in this situation.”

Beyond the media relations hit, the NFL is going to have to fight this issue on two fronts, the referees and the players. Imagine one of the stars getting injured because a “scab” referee is not doing their job. There would be hell to pay from the NFLPA as well as fans. I just don’t believe the rewards outweigh the risks for the NFL. Goodell is being obtuse in this situation and I am not sure why. Like it or not, referees are an integral part of how the game is managed and played. When excellent referees are on the field, we as fans pay attention to the game and that is it. When referees can’t manage the game, we scream and yell at them as do players, coaches, media, etc. In my opinion, there is going to be a significant increase in player, coach, media, and fan anger if the NFL implements its plan to use “scab” referees.

To me, the solution is quite simple. Pay the officials on the level of Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, but with this caveat. Make them full-time employees. When the NFL is in the offseason, require referees to be a part of the offseason program as well. Just like players, have referees be in OTA’s, training camps, etc. I believe that is the one major concession the referees need to make. This job must be a full-time responsibility. To that end, the referees should also get paid like full-time employees and receive the appropriate benefits as well. I would like to see referees take a more active role in the offseason through training because I believe that makes them better at their job. I think that the NFL paying its referees fairly and requiring them to be full-time will make the game better. And in the end, isn’t that the goal? Just show the referees the money already Goodell.