Roger Goodell Upholds Suspensions but Throws Players a Lifeline

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Roger Goodell Upholds Suspensions but Throws Players a Lifeline
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The NFL announced earlier Tuesday afternoon that commissioner Roger Goodell had upheld the suspensions handed down earlier this year for the four players involved in the infamous Bountygate. 

New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (16 games), Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), Green Bay Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) all had their suspensions upheld by Goodell. 

In a statement that landed in my inbox a little bit ago, Goodell addressed the four players directly:

Throughout this entire process, including your appeals, and despite repeated invitations and encouragement to do so, none of you has offered any evidence that would warrant reconsideration of your suspensions. Instead, you elected not to participate meaningfully in the appeal process...

Although you claimed to have been ‘wrongfully accused with insufficient evidence,’ your lawyers elected not to ask a single question of the principal investigators, both of whom were present at the hearing (as your lawyers had requested); you elected not to testify or to make any substantive statement, written or oral, in support of your appeal; you elected not to call a single witness to support your appeal; and you elected not to introduce a single exhibit addressing the merits of your appeal. Instead, your lawyers raised a series of jurisdictional and procedural objections that generally ignore the CBA, in particular its provisions governing ‘conduct detrimental’ determinations

Goodell is, of course, referencing the fact that no matter how much the players, the union and their lawyers may begrudge the fact that Goodell holds all the disciplinarian cards, the fact of the matter remains that he is simply wielding the powers that were given to him after both sides signed off on the new 10-year collective bargaining agreement last summer. 

Of course, the fact that they released this statement at 4 p.m. ET the day before a national holiday tells you all you need to know about how much the league is trying to minimize the sure-to-follow blowback not only from the players and their union but from fans as well.

Goodell and his "my way or the highway" routine are not popular, and the entire Bountygate saga has played out in public like an extended car wreck that fans are unable to escape. 

Whether you agree with the commissioner and the league or not, the players' union has done a good job of raising questions about the validity of the league's investigation into the Saints' alleged bounty program (you can find an excellent overview of these concerns here).

Even after all of that, however, the problem for the players is that the public doesn't have the power to reduce their suspensions. Goodell does. Rather than, as Goodell writes, participate in any kind of meaningful way in the appeals process, the players and the union have decided to defy the man that they themselves handed the power that they are now so unhappy with.

In his statement, Goodell again addressed the players directly on this very matter:

While this decision constitutes my final and binding determination under the CBA, I of course retain the inherent authority to reduce a suspension should facts be brought to my attention warranting the exercise of that discretion.

The record confirms that each of you was given multiple chances to meet with me to present your side of the story. You are each still welcome to do so.

While most of the media is running its tired "Goodell agrees with Goodell on suspensions!" shtick, that last line is going largely unnoticed. 

It seems clear that the commissioner wants to meet with each of these players individually, man to man, without lawyers or union representatives present, and hear their side of the story. If they did so, I feel there's a very good chance that Goodell would see fit to reduce their suspensions (yes, even Jonathan Vilma, who—of the four players—has made this fight the most personal).

Goodell has done this sort of thing before. Back in 2010, after a face-to-face meeting with Ben Roethlisberger, the Steelers quarterback found his initial six-game suspension for his well-publicized legal problems reduced down to four games. 

Obviously, this is an entirely different set of circumstances, but the fact remains that the commish wants to hear from the players. He has thrown them a lifeline.

Unfortunately, the players and the union seem hellbent on taking this to court as quickly as possible. Less than two hours after the league's announcement, ESPN's Adam Schefter reported that lawyers for Fujita, Smith and Hargrove plan to file a restraining order in an attempt to try and stop the suspensions in federal court. 

The players seem to be following the StarCaps blueprint—tie up the league-mandated suspensions in court for as long as possible, which allows the players to keep playing in the meantime.

As for the legal challenge itself, the courts are often wary of stepping on collectively bargained authority, but that doesn't mean that the players have no chance. But even the most ardent supporter of the players in question will acknowledge that this legal maneuver is a long shot at best. 

It just seems a shame that Vilma, Fujita, Hargrove and Smith feel it's better to go the Eddie Murphy "Wasn't me" route rather than sit down with the commissioner man to man and lay out their own version of events. 

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