Bountygate is officially over, as former commissioner Paul Tagliabue acted to vacate all player discipline as it relates to the New Orleans Saints' administration of a bounty program. Yet for the Saints and the NFL, nothing Tagliabue says or does will truly matter, as Roger Goodell's damage has already been done.
Basically, the ruling exonerated Scott Fujita and found penalties excessive for Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma. Notably, the last three were not found innocent. Rather, Tagliabue decided that although evidence existed, it had been tainted by Saints employees and did not warrant suspensions or serious fines.
In essence, the former commissioner believes the buck stops with Gregg Williams, Sean Payton and Mickey Loomis, in stark contrast to the current commissioner, who tried to root out every Saints player even remotely connected to the bounty program.
As Goodell tried to make examples of the Saints, he now has a fantastic case study for the next time he tries to solve a league-wide problem with McCarthy-style tactics and kangaroo court cases.
Tagliabue decision obviously huge win for players, but it's carefully written to uphold and protect broad commish powers in future cases.
— Gabe Feldman (@SportsLawGuy) December 11, 2012
Make no mistake about it: The Saints are not innocent—not one bit. As an organization, they allowed this to happen (even if it "happens everywhere," as the apologists might say). Tagliabue reviewed the same evidence Goodell had and found it sufficient to prove guilt.
Also, as I've written numerous times before, there is no justification for a bounty program. Everyone else doing it is not justification. The fact that football is inherently violent is not a justification. Bounties are wrong, and Goodell was wise to want to root them out.
Where Goodell failed, however, was in the haste of his action and the rashness of his response.
Goodell tried to wrap Bountygate into a neat little package—an open and shut case, if you will. He's like a person called for jury duty who expects everything to be a little too much like CSI or Law and Order. In reality, investigations and prosecutions take months (sometimes years) to finally be settled, and Goodell tried to take shortcuts where none existed.
Now, it's months after the original investigation ended and the original punishments were doled out. Suspensions have already been served. The course of numerous teams has been altered (at least for 2012, if not longer). The league's shield has been tarnished—as much by Goodell as by the bounty scandal itself.
This entire nonsensical process underscores the need for transparency, openness and checks and balances in the NFL disciplinary process. While the recently negotiated CBA allows Goodell to be "judge, jury and executioner," it is clearly not in the league's best interest for that to be the case.
One of the big takeaways from Tags ruling: Fujita said he was innocent all along and he was.
— mike freeman (@realfreemancbs) December 11, 2012
If Tagliabue proved nothing else today, it's that Goodell correctly called out the Saints organization but entirely botched the investigation, punishment and everything else. Goodell went in half-cocked on a hunch, and although his hunch turned out right in the end, he embarrassed himself and the commissioner's office by his actions.
So, what has changed?
Vilma is still suing Goodell for defamation of character. The Saints are still 5-8 and without their head coach. Saints fans still despise Goodell and are convinced of their team's total innocence. Their opponents' fans will continue to pepper the Saints with jeers, and the specter of being a dirty team will continue to muddy the waters for years to come.
All parties will claim victory today. Like a Rorschach test, people will see what they want to see in this ruling.
But in the end, nothing was won today. All this scandal has done—from beginning to end—is give people plenty of reason to think less of the Saints, less of Goodell and less of the NFL.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.