The NFLPA regarded the decision of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to step aside from the appeal hearing in the bounty cases as a major victory. On the surface, it was.
But now that Goodell is out and former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue is in, there’s no guarantee that the players suspended by current Commissioner will be happy with the process used or the outcome reached by Goodell’s predecessor.
“Any time we move towards a fair evaluation of the evidence it is a positive development,” Jonathan Vilma’s lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, told Albert Breer of NFL Network. “Commissioner Goodell’s belated recognition that he cannot possibly serve as an impartial and unbiased arbitrator is certainly a positive development. And we have enormous respect for Paul Tagliabue.
“Having said that, we now need to learn whether Commissioner Tagliabue plans to provide to us the fundamental rights that Commissioner Goodell ignored, including the right to examine the accusers and to see the evidence, and also we need to consider that Commissioner Tagliabue is counsel to the law firm representing Commissioner Goodell in Jonathan’s defamation lawsuit, as well as representing the NFL in Jonathan’s challenge to the entire process in this matter.”
In a court of law, the rules of professional conduct and judicial ethics would never allow the judge and one of the lawyers to have an association through the same law firm. It’s a point that the suspended players should make and preserve and use if necessary before Judge Helen Berrigan, who possibly will be troubled by the fact that Tagliabue and the league’s lawyers are branches on the same legal tree.
But the bigger question is whether Tagliabue will, as Ginsberg said, require the NFL to produce former Saints coordinator Gregg Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo as witnesses at the appeal hearing, to explain and reconcile their sworn statements given to the league office. And whether Tagliabue will expect something more than a cursory disclosure of documents supporting the conclusion that a bounty program existed.
Also, while the suspended players have not yet shown any desire to pursue the appeal process under the Collective Bargaining Agreement that resulted in the first wave of suspensions being vacated based on the notion that Goodell failed to stay clearly within his lane of jurisdiction, Tagliabue must avoid straying into the territory of salary-cap violations, or a new attack under the CBA could become likely.
The most obvious litmus test will be whether Tagliabue insists that Williams and Cerullo testify. Though requiring them to be present won’t operate as a guarantee that the process will be truly fair and impartial, not demanding their testimony will show that the process remains defective — and it will significantly increase the likelihood of Judge Berrigan overturning the suspensions.