From a P.R. perspective, Friday’s ruling from an internal appeals panel amounts to a huge win for the Saints and the players suspended as part of the alleged bounty program. From a legal perspective, the end result could be the same, eventually.
The ruling, made not by a court but as part of the Collective Bargaining Agreement’s internal procedures, sets the process back to square one and requires Commissioner Roger Goodell to impose discipline from scratch, with a requirement that his decisions stay clearly within the confines of his authority. He has the power to impose discipline for conduct detrimental to the game, but he lacks the power to impose discipline for any salary-cap violations arising from the alleged pay-for-performance/bounty system.
This time, Goodell needs to make it clear that he has remained in his lane.
That’s the import of the ruling. Nothing more. The arbitration panel didn’t determine whether there was — or wasn’t — a bounty program or whether the players may — or may not — be disciplined for their participation in the program.
Instead, the panel said it wasn’t clear from the documents generated by the NFL whether Goodell imposed discipline for conduct detrimental to the game (which he has the power to do) or salary-cap violations (which he doesn’t have the power to do). At this point, then, there’s no reason to think the ultimate outcome will be any different, with Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma suspended for a year, Saints defensive end Will Smith suspended for four games, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita suspended for four games, and free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove suspended for eight games.
Actually, this gives Goodell and company an opportunity for a Mulligan. They can go back to square one and re-do the process in a way that will make it more likely to withstand any and all challenges, in court or otherwise.