Smith was suspended in part because of his role as a “defensive leader.” Once again, this is a vengeful paternalism masquerading as principle. “I am not aware of previous League discipline that similarly rested on whether or not a player was a team leader,” Tagliabue writes, dismantling the Goodelian precept of “you’re older and you should have known better.”
The NFL is claiming today that Tagliabue’s decision “underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters.” That’s a funny gloss on a process that U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan, in hearing Vilma’s defamation suit against Goodell, described as unfair, saying she “believed that the commissioner overstepped his bounds.” To the extent that Vilma, Smith, Fujita, and Hargrove did receive due process, it was in some measure because the league felt threatened by the possibility of having the case heard in a real court rather than its own kangaroo version, one in which real evidentiary rules apply and the judge doesn’t also happen to be the jury and the executioner.
Vilma’s attorney Peter Ginsberg declared today that his client’s defamation suit against Goodell will continue. Of all the players, the linebacker’s case remains the cloudiest—though Tagliabue says there’s strong evidence to suggest Vilma made a speech calling for a bounty to be placed on Brett Favre, he makes a distinction between off-field rhetoric and on-field action, saying “there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field."
This is the kind of shaded analysis that reflects the reality of a sport in which there will never be a clear demarcation between sanctioned and unsanctioned violence. From the earliest stages of the bounty case, though, Roger Goodell has acted as if blurry lines are clear ones. When he first announced the Saints’ transgressions, Goodell noted that he was most concerned with “player safety and competitive integrity.” But what Paul Tagliabue’s ruling reveals, as the Saints look back at the wreckage of their season, is that there’s a much bigger threat to the NFL’s competitive integrity than a bounty program: It’s a commissioner who’s out to make examples of people for defying his authority.