By vacating the penalties against the New Orleans Saints football players who collected “bounties” for injuring opponents, but upholding them for Saints coaches and administrators, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent an important message: Football franchises, like the fish in the old saying, do indeed rot from the head down.
Tagliabue was tapped by current commissioner Roger Goodell to hear a second round of appeals by members of the Saints who allegedly conspired to offer thousands of dollars of bonuses to players who deliberately injured opposing stars. The most notable accusation was a $10,000 reward for anyone who knocked quarterback Brett Favre of the Minnesota Vikings out of the conference championship game that sent the Saints on to their first and only Super Bowl title.
Originally, Goodell suspended coach Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games, and interim coach Joe Vitt for six. He also suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the season and three other players for a range of three to eight games. The players eventually were allowed to play while their appeals were pending, and Tagliabue decided this week that their punishment should be vacated. While saying that three players “engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in” football, the primary fault lay in “broad organizational misconduct” and a “deliberate, unprecedented, and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation.”
The bounty system apparently went on for three seasons. Thus, Tagliabue upheld the suspensions for Payton, Williams, Loomis, and Vitt. Tagliabue’s decision offers institutional guidance for major college sports, where players can lose their eligibility and even Heisman trophies for violations, while their coaches go on to other schools to earn millions of dollars and national championships. Tagliabue said the Saints case was so unusual, his ruling “should not be considered a precedent.” That’s too bad, because it’s a good one, in football and in life.