How Paul Tagliabue saved the NFL and players from themselves in Bountygate


NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former commissioner Paul Tagliabue

King Solomon solved a thorny legal question with a decision to split a baby in half. It was the stuff of Biblical legend. Retired NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue split the baby today by giving all sides in the New Orleans Saints Bountygate scandal a face-saving way to claim a win.

Tagliabue deserves a paragraph when they re-edit Scripture.

Current NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and NFL PA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith dumped a hot potato in Tagliabue's lap. For the NFL, it was how to exit gracefully Goodell's hard line on the four players named in the scandal while reaffirming the league's power to regulate the game.

For the Players' Association, it was how to defend members in a disciplinary process that it does not like, but agreed to accept in the labor agreement.

For the Saints players, Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, it was how to escape financial penalty for too eagerly joining the team's prohibited incentive for aggressive play and then stonewalling the league's investigation.


1. reaffirmed the commissioner's authority to act,
2. bullet-proofed the NFL court position by providing the players due process in the appeal,
3. confirmed that the league's evidence was enough to make the case against the players,
4. gave players an escape from punishment by pointing fingers at the Saints organization.

Don't buy the hype

While all sides claim the win, nothing changed in the union's effort to check Goodell's power. Now, a paper trail exists that finds the players guilty of the accusations. Most fans will never read it, but courts will. (Scott Fujita was exonerated.) Tagliabue chided the commissioner by ruling that fines were justified but suspension was not.

Goodell won't like that, but he will take it. It's a strategic retreat, like playing deep Cover-2 with a lead. You gladly give ground as long as the other side does not score.

Tagliabue is as sharp a Washington lawyer as you will find. Bet the rent money that he wrote his findings like a court brief to shield the NFL from Judge Helen Berrigan of the U.S. District Court in New Orleans. The league is good at that. It's how they roll … over the union every time.

If the two sides had not hardened positions after the lockout, Goodell might have reached the same conclusion, and the union might have encouraged the players to appeal their case sooner in front of Goodell instead of Tagliabue.

The golden age of labor peace

Tagliabue's time as commissioner stretched  from 1989, just before Reggie White opened up modern free agency, to 2006 when pro football cemented its position as America's game. Tagliabue was most effective by bargaining with, not against, the Players Association and its leader, the late Gene Upshaw.

For that, both Tags and Upshaw took reputation hits. Upshaw was as tough a bargainer as could be found in the labor movement, but he believed unions  played a role in the health of their industries. He was accused of being the league's lap dog, yet the NFL salary cap was higher under Upshaw than now under the new CBA. It was enough to make an owner scream.  

The league enjoyed unparalleled revenue growth and stadium construction during Tagliabue's leadership. That did not stop the small market-big market civil war among owners during the 2006 CBA Extension. That extension was widely acclaimed at the time. We know now that it merely postponed the hostility that erupted over 2010 and 2011.

Upshaw was safely in the Pro Football Hall of Fame before he was named NFLPA executive director. Tagliabue might never be enshrined next to Pete Rozell there.

Players and owners changed directions when Tagliabue retired and Upshaw died. The owners moved to a hard line with a lockout strategy authored by Tagliabue's successor, Roger Goodell. The players did not replace Upshaw with a hard-nosed negotiator. They hired a sharp DC lawyer, DeMaurice Smith, to sue the bastards.

Enter Paul Tagliabue to find middle ground by splitting babies.

"Can't we all just get along?" ~ Rodney King

UPDATE: Link to the full reading of the Tagliabue Decision on Bountygate.

About Anthony Brown

Lifelong Redskins fan and blogger about football and life since 2004. Joined MVN's Hog Heaven blog in 2005 and then moved Redskins Hog Heaven to Bolguin Network. Believes that the course of a season is pre-ordained by management decisions made during the offseason. Can occasionally be found on the This Given Sunday blog and he does guest posts.