New Orleans Saints fans were still stinging from the 52-27 stomping delivered by the New York Giants when former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated bounty penalties against Saints players three days later — giving Black and Gold fans a longed-for "I told you so" moment.
Tagliabue's decision means none of the four players disciplined for participating in the bounty program will have to serve suspensions. The decision found that Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita (now with the Cleveland Browns) and former defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (now a free agent) acted in ways that perhaps merited a fine, but not the lengthy suspensions they received. Tagliabue did say there was a pay-for-performance program that could have warranted fines if the league had seen fit.
So what does the Tagliabue decision mean? While many fans considered it a slap to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, the decision was carefully crafted to give something to both sides. Bounty penalties were vacated, which gave players what they wanted. For the league, the decision confirmed the existence of the pay-for-play program and the NFL's authority to levy fines in connection with it.
Judging by the comments of many callers to my radio show, The Sports Hangover, and a stroll around message boards, fans feel vindicated. To them it's proof the NFL had a vendetta against the New Orleans Saints.
"I think that this was some serious vindication," said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has been outspoken about his displeasure with Goodell's investigation. "Certainly they've been through a lot, [they] had to go through a lot. Basically what got overturned was 31 games of suspension, millions of dollars of salary, but most importantly, their reputations.
"Thank God for the fight and the resolve that all of those guys have for justice and to fight for a fair process, because that's all that they've ever wanted. That's all that anyone within this organization has ever wanted. The unfortunate thing is, I feel like the NFL, through this whole process, including Commissioner Goodell, has been all about an outcome as opposed to a fair process."
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) pointed out that players were able to defeat the commissioner. NFL spokesman Greg Aiello however, added via Twitter that the NFL was just in its decisions and inquiry. "Memo to NFLPA — Paul Tagliabue wrote: 'I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players,'" a tweet read. Aiello then made it sound as if Goodell had been merciful in his rulings. "Tagliabue: 'There is evidence in the record that suggests Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater # of Saints players.'"
It boils down to this. There are more than 3,000 players suing the NFL for concussion-related issues. The league used the Saints as its poster child, or scapegoat — an example to all. The NFL had to show it is serious about player safety. (This is, of course, the same league that forced every NFL team to play a Thursday night game this season and has said it would like a team based in London despite obvious travel and time logistics.)
"I think people have really come around to realize what this thing was all about from the beginning," Brees said. "Right now, the league office and Commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players and, I'd say, with a lot of the fans because of the way that this has taken place."
The Saints entered the 2012 season as Super Bowl contenders, but have been relegated to the role of spoilers. I feel for the fans who pay good money to watch a product that has been diluted due to league decisions. Businesses took a hit as well; the folks at Geaux for the Gold, which sells Saints and LSU Tigers gear and is a sponsor of my radio show, told me sales at their store are down 75 percent from last season.
Many fans see this as a wasted season in which the Saints lost a window of opportunity to compete for a championship. Taking away the head coach, general manager and an assistant head coach was too much for the team to overcome. The person or persons in charge of making decisions for the greater good of the league failed to realize just what consequences those decisions would have on the Saints, the city of New Orleans and the fan base.
Vacating the suspensions of four players? Too little. Too late.
Beginning Monday, Dec. 17, Gus Kattengell and The Sports Hangover move to 106.1 FM, "The Ticket." Listen to Gus weekdays from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.