NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell gives a press conference following an owners meeting on Wednesday, after former commissioner Paul Tagliabue decided not to discipline players involved in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. (LM Otero/AP)

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s predecessor Paul Tagliabue overruled Goodell’s punishments for New Orleans players allegedly involved in the league’s bounty scandal. (LM Otero/AP)

Earlier this year, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell disciplined current and former members of the New Orleans Saints for their involvement in a bounty scandal. On Tuesday, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overruled Goodell after reviewing  the players’ appeal at Goodell’s request. Tagliabue said Goodell’s findings were essentially correct, but reinstated the players and vacate their suspensions and fines.

Josh Levin, executive editor of Slate Magazine, wrote about the appeals this week and told Only A Game that Goodell now stands on shaky ground.

“The NFL would like you to believe that Tagliabue affirmed Goodell’s decision.”
– Josh Levin, Slate Magazine
“There’s been kind of difference of opinion here,” he told Bill Littlefield. “The NFL would like you to believe that Tagliabue affirmed Goodell’s decision. Their kind of post-appeal commentary was, ‘He agreed with us there was a bounty system here, he agreed with us that the players did what we had said they did. The only small difference is that he decided that our suspensions were completely out of bounds.’ And to me, and to a lot of other people, we think that’s a fairly large distinction to be made.”

Tagliabue didn’t criticize Goodell’s investigation into the scandal, but made it clear in his report that he viewed parts of the process as unfair.

“If you read the full ruling, Tagliabue goes through very carefully and outlines that precedent wasn’t really followed here,” Levin said. “There were similar pay-for-performance schemes in the NFL before, perhaps not as egregious, but he found that the precedent before in the league was to just fine the teams. Players had not been suspended for doing parallel similar things.”

Tagliabue’s ruling led some to question if the whole arrangement was designed to allow Goodell to back out of the suspensions, but  Levin dismissed the idea as a hilarious conspiracy theory.

“Drew Brees is one of the conspiracy theorists. He has said that he thought it was staged, that Tagliabue was brought on to allow the NFL to wash his hands of this and have Goodell still say, ‘Well, you know I was trying to be tough, but other people came in and overruled me.

“This was something he made very prominent this year in this climate where safety is so important. And to suggest that he wanted to be overruled here seems a little bit farcical.”

The controversy isn’t over yet. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, one of the players originally punished, went ahead with his defamation case against Goodell. But Levin said he wasn’t sure the feeling would extend across the league.

“You’ve heard some from Patriots fans saying, ‘We told you back in 2007 with “Spygate” that this guy was out of control and was overreacting and you’re only listening now. We were out in front of hating Goodell.’ I think what the Saints showed here is if you have a union, there are some ways you can fight back and counteract the commissioner, even though he is given such broad powers by the collective bargaining agreement, so I think other players might look at the Saints and see that they have the stuff in their toolkit.”