Will the NFL commissioner's harsh punishment set a precedent? What options do the players have? An expert answers these questions, and more.
The NFL came down hard Wednesday on the Saints' players allegedly responsible for orchestrating the bounty scheme that paid out money to defensive players who knocked opponents out of games with big hits. The league suspended four players for a total of 31 games, led by a yearlong ban for linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the accused player mastermind. The other players suspended were now-Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games), Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), and now-Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games). The suspensions, handed out by commissioner Roger Goodell, were for initiating the bounty program, paying into the slush fund for knocking out opposing players, and lying to league investigators about the scheme between 2009 and 2011.
All four players have announced they will appeal the suspensions. But Goodell, the very man who decided the length of the bans, also has the final say on player appeals for off-field incidents under the new collective bargaining agreement signed in August.
So what options do the players have? What are their chances on appeal, and what are their legal options if Goodell upholds the suspensions? Here's a primer.
What was Goodell's rationale for the player suspensions? After suspending three coaches and general manager Mickey Loomis, including head coach Sean Payton for a year and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, it looks like the commissioner wanted to hold the players to the same harsh standard. Like Payton, Vilma got a season-long ban for a combination of facilitating the program through his role as the team's defensive captain and lying to league investigators about it.
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The lying was a leading cause of the harsh suspensions, according to Gabe Feldman, sports law professor at Tulane University Law School.
"If the Saints had shut it down when they were first confronted by the league [in 2009], it's possible they would have escaped punishment altogether," Feldman said. "But they ignored the warnings and lied to the commissioner about changing their behavior."
Goodell wanted to send a message to the player ringleaders of the scheme as well as the rest of the league, Feldman added.
"BountyGate had repeated instances of cheating and conduct detrimental to the health and safety of the players," he said. "The commissioner is saying that this is the worst thing a player or team can do in this day and age."
Does this decision set a precedent? Absolutely. This is the first scandal of its kind, and the length of the suspensions given to Saints coaches and players would likely be mirrored if other bounty programs are uncovered. Feldman noted, however, that the Saints' penalties also stemmed from lying to the league, a mistake other teams are not likely to make at this point.
What's next for the players? All four players will appeal the suspensions and present evidence to Goodell that the bans are unfairly harsh and/or unsupported by evidence. But when the prosecutor is also the appellate judge, a reversal on appeal is highly unlikely.
The players will probably argue that Goodell does not have the authority to hear the appeal because appeals for on-field conduct are heard by Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, Feldman said. But the commissioner will likely be unmoved by that argument because both the cash payments and the cover-up occurred off the field.
If the players lose the appeal, what then? If the suspended players want to pursue legal action against the league, they would most likely file a breach-of-contract suit in federal court in Louisiana, where they would hope to find a sympathetic judge or jury that bleeds black and gold. The players would argue that Goodell violated the collective bargaining agreement signed by the NFL and the players in August by exceeding the scope of the authority given to him by the players in the new CBA.
"The argument would be that there was no basis for the commissioner's discipline, that he acted in a capricious way," Feldman said.
Will the suspensions be shortened or otherwise overturned? Probably not. The players' breach-of-contract arguments is belied by the new CBA itself, which removed third-party reviews of the commissioner's suspensions for off-field conduct. Feldman noted that the players' chances would have been far greater before the August agreement was reached.
"It's a difficult burden to meet for the players because courts generally give deference to sports commissioners and because the players authorized the commissioner to wield extensive authority through the CBA," he said. "The argument that the commissioner abused his powers is difficult to make when players gave him such extensive authority."
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