Paul Tagliabue Returns Some Semblance of Democracy to NFL With Ruling to Vindicate Saints Players

Paul Tagliabue, Roger GoodellSince Paul Tagliabue retired as NFL commissioner in 2006, the league has become something of a dictatorship.

Roger Goodell, who was chosen as Tagliabue’s successor, has had considerably more to deal with in his now six-year term as commissioner, but he’s also instituted much harsher and more stringent policies than ever before seen.  But, on Tuesday, Tagliabue undermined Goodell’s absolute power, vindicating four players — Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita — for their role in the Saints’ bounty scandal.

Contrary to popular belief, Tagliabue’s findings actually do support Goodell’s stance on the actions of the players.

“There is evidence in the record that suggests Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints players,” Tagliabue wrote, according to NFL spokersperson Greg Aiello.

But even in the agreement over the appalling actions of those players, what he disagreed with was the way Goodell went about disciplining those players. And that in and of itself is a major coup against the assumed dictator.

“My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell’s findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,” Tagliabue wrote. “However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization.”

Tagliabue’s reason may agree with Goodell’s assessment of the players’ actions, but his mindset starkly conflicts with Goodell’s harsh and firm action against them for such actions. Which is a major win for the NFL Players Association and all others in the path of Goodell’s wrath.

Goodell’s reign of power began in 2007, less than a year after he took the job, when he suspended cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones for the entire season. He continued on that suspending spree, punishing player after player for two, six and eight games at a time and even indefinitely for the again-guilty Jones and Michael Vick.

But even with dozens of suspensions passed down and millions of dollars in fines collected, nothing quite compared to the sanctions Goodell instituted for the New Orleans Saints’ so-called “Bountygate” scandal.

After a three-year investigation left Goodell and the NFL with reportedly stacks of evidence against Saints players, coaches and decision makers, the commissioner levied heavy penalties against all parties involved. Fujita was suspended three games, Smith was hit with four, Hargrove got eight and Vilma the entire 2012 season. The penalties were harsh and most — including many members of the national media — felt Goodell’s reason was rock solid, making the sanctions appear just. But Tagliabue dispelled that notion altogether.

Clearly the players involved were found at fault for their actions, displaying Goodell’s persistence to find the truth. But in the same vein, their punishments were also found at fault, just as visibly exhibiting Goodell’s abuse of power.

Tagliabue, who was always viewed as a fair and impartial leader, has now at least eased Goodell’s stranglehold over the NFL’s governing body. It’s not to say that the NFL’s governing procedure, in which Goodell is the judge and jury, will change at all. But the perception is definitely growing that change is needed.

Whether Tagliabue’s decision has any real impact on Goodell’s governance or not remains to be seen. Either way, on Tuesday, the NFL finally felt like a democracy again, at least for one day.

Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.

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