The Bounty Four are free. On Friday afternoon, an appeals panel overturned the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita, and Anthony Hargrove, decreeing that Roger Goodell might not have had jurisdiction to punish them for their roles in the Saints bounty scandal. This marks the first time in memory that someone, somewhere has told the NFL commissioner that he can’t do whatever he wants, whenever he wants to do it. Hopefully this is the start of a trend.
When Goodell suspended the four players back in May, he adopted a familiar pose. The commissioner sees himself less as a CEO than as Father Football, a head of household who is perpetually concerned about the state of the game and disappointed with the behavior of the men who play it. In announcing the players’ punishments—a full season for Vilma, eight games for Hargrove, four for Smith, and three for Fujita—he insisted that the “rules designed to promote player safety, fair play, and the integrity of the game are adhered to and effectively and consistently enforced.” He said that “respect for the men that play the game starts with the way players conduct themselves with each other on the field." And then he sent the players to bed without supper.
In the cloistered world of the NFL, there’s a certain logic to the way Goodell projects his authority. By the terms of the league’s collective bargaining agreement, he is the decider. Traditionally, he alone has determined the terms of players’ suspensions, and they must—as Michael Vick and Ben Roethlisberger have done—convince him personally that they’ve cleansed their souls.
When an authority from outside the land of football peered down at Goodell’s fiefdom, she didn’t see an all-powerful ruler—she saw a man feverishly impersonating one. In a hearing last month on Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against the NFL, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan declared that she’d “like to rule in Vilma’s favor.” According to Tulane sports law professor Gabe Feldman, Berrigan “repeatedly stated that she believed that the commissioner overstepped his bounds in disciplining the Bounty 4, that the league did not give the players a fair process, that Vilma’s punishment was unnecessarily harsh, and that Vilma was suffering irreparable harm because of it.”
Berrigan didn’t issue a ruling that day, as she was likely waiting for the players and the league to reach a settlement or for the appeals board to make its decision, which it did on Friday. The appeals panel ruled that—counter to an earlier decision by an arbitrator—Goodell may not have had the authority under the CBA to suspend the Bounty Four. As Pro Football Talk explains it:
[It’s] not entirely clear whether Goodell imposed the suspensions under his authority to prevent conduct detrimental to the game or whether he infringed on the exclusive power of the “System Arbitrator” to penalize violations of the salary cap, arising from the fact that money potentially changed hands in connection with the pay-for-performance/bounty program.
Basically, Goodell can suspend the Saints, but he can only suspend them for certain aspects of their behavior. The commissioner could now theoretically hand out the exact same suspensions to the exact same players, saying that he’s punishing them for “conduct detrimental to the game.” But that’s less important than the fact that Goodell’s aura of invincibility has been punctured. Goodell’s stance on authority has always been: When the NFL commissioner does it, that means it is not illegal. But there are certain things, we’ve now been told by men and women who outrank even the most powerful man in football, that Roger Goodell cannot do. Imagine that.