Based on the reactions from the parties after an arbitration panel ruled last week that the Bountygate suspensions violated the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement, the average person might think they knew who won and who lost. But this isn't your average case.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended four players - linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, linebacker Scott Fujita, and defensive end Anthony Hargrove - for periods ranging from four months to a year for allegedly engaging in a pay-for-injury scheme while all four were members of the New Orleans Saints in 2009. Goodell found that the players participated in a bounty program which paid bonuses for hits that injured an opponent.
The suspensions were based on a determination that the payments to players violated a salary cap provision in the CBA. In its decision, the panel said Special Master Stephen Burbank has jurisdiction over such matters, not Goodell. The panel went on to say that although Goodell could not punish the players for salary cap violations, he does have the authority to punish them for conduct detrimental to the game.
The decision was welcome news to the players, all of whom were immediately reinstated, making them eligible to play in last weekend's season-opening games. But the question on everyone's mind is, for how long? The panel's decision is based on a technicality, meaning it is less about innocence than a reprieve. In a release issued shortly after the decision was announced, the league adopted a strident tone, suggesting that the commissioner would revisit the issue to determine what punishment would be imposed. But even though the players' victory may be hollow and short-lived, that doesn't mean it's insignificant.
Whether the punishment handed down by the league is based on one section of the CBA or another may appear to be irrelevant. After all, a suspension by any definition is a suspension. But make no mistake, regardless of how Goodell elects to proceed, the panel handed the commissioner a resounding defeat, even while it affirmed his authority to proceed in another direction. The players and the NFLPA have long maintained that Goodell deems himself to be omnipotent, acting as judge, jury and executioner on all matters related to player discipline.
And why wouldn't he? CBA after CBA has affirmed the league's authority to discipline the players without the opportunity for an independent review. Take the present case as an example. Goodell found the players in violation of the CBA, suspended them, and when they appealed his decision, he served as the hearing officer on their appeal. To the surprise of no one, Goodell affirmed his own decision. Not exactly the due process envisioned by the language in the U.S. constitution.
But times have changed for the NFL. NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith, in office since 2009, has charted a different path from his predecessors. He has been willing to stand up for the players, as he has done in the present matter. And you can be sure this isn't the last time the union will challenge Goodell on Bountygate. Any re-suspension by the league is guaranteed to be appealed.
While Goodell is adored by the owners, he is almost universally despised by the players. His heavy-handed "I'm the sheriff" approach to player discipline since he took office has worn thin among the ranks. According to some observers, Goodell's role in Bountygate is itself an example of his lust for power. Rather than allow one of his lieutenants in the league office, Art Shell or Ted Cottrell, both of whom have jurisdiction over on-field infractions, to sit in judgment of the players, Goodell elected to exert his own powers as commissioner. In hindsight, the move was a miscalculation, resulting in an embarrassing setback. It will be interesting to see if Goodell elects to hand off the ball in the second go-around.
The panel's ruling has no effect on the three coaches and one general manager who were also disciplined in the Bountygate matter. They are considered part of management and, unlike the players, are not protected by the union.
As Yogi Berra famously said, "it ain't over 'till it's over," a phrase that applies as much to legal proceedings as it does to sports. Short-term winners can become long-term losers and vice versa. Such may be the case in Bountygate.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and is a contributing author to the Business of Sports Network. Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org