When first we absorbed the ruling from former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue as summarized on the Twitter page of NFL spokesman Greg Aiello, it seemed fairly obvious that Tagliabue was looking for a way to give the players the keys to their freedom without giving Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma the keys to the league’s vault.
Careful examination of the 22-page, single-spaced ruling generated by Tagliabue definitely confirms that Tagliabue has indeed tried to insulate Goodell from liability for defamation, if for no reason other than to insulate Tagliabue’s law firm from losing one of its most important clients. Still, portions of the text crafted carefully by Tagliabue suggest a passive-aggressive effort to send an unmistakable message to the man who is now presiding over the sport of football.
Consider this paragraph, which applauds Goodell for trying to eradicate bounties from football but basically says, in polite fashion, that he lacks the sophistication or proper understanding of human nature to pull it off: “In this context, confronted with the events here, Commissioner Goodell correctly set out aggressively to address them. But when an effort to change a culture rests heavily on prohibitions, and discipline and sanctions that are seen as selective, ad hoc or inconsistent, then people in all industries are prone to react negatively — whether they be construction workers, police officers or football players. They will push back and challenge the discipline as unwarranted. As reflected in the record in the present appeals, they will deny, hide behind a code of silence, destroy evidence and obstruct. In other words, rightly or wrongly, a sharp change in sanctions or discipline can often be seen as arbitrary and as an impediment rather than an instrument of change. This is what we see on the record here.”
In other words, Tagliabue is telling Goodell he shouldn’t have tried to defuse a time bomb with a hammer. The process requires more nuance, and Goodell’s predecessor invoked his own predecessor in order to show Goodell, in subtle fashion, why Tagliabue possibly thinks Goodell can’t hold the jock of the man whose car, according to the new TIME article, Goodell used to drive.
Specifically, Tagliabue cites “an important example” from the tenure of former Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who used “a short-term exemption from discipline as a means of swiftly facilitating an intensified effort to change a negative culture to enhance the health and safety of NFL players.” Tagliabue then explains (or, from Goodell’s perspective, lectures) the details.
It was the 1980s. And the NFL was (finally) waking up to the problem of steroids. “Rozelle developed and implemented a set of policies, prohibitions and testing regimens to identify steroid abusers and eliminate the safety and health risks,” Tagliabue writes, knowing full well that Goodell knows this because he was working in the league office at the time. “[Rozelle] included a discipline-free transition year in the new policy. Rozelle warned one-year in advance that a discipline policy suspending players for steroid use would be implemented the following season. Four months prior to the enforcement of the policy, all players were advised by letter of the specific disciplinary actions for steroid use. For that year, Rozelle sharpened the rules and set escalating penalties while withholding player discipline. Rozelle recognized the realities of team operations and sought to ensure uniform compliance and enforcement in several dozen team workplaces. He understood that sometimes it is necessary to clarify the rules — make sure everyone understands; postpone discipline for a while, not forever, but maybe for a season; and then enforce the rules with strict discipline.”
In other words, Tagliabue is telling Goodell, as gently as possible, that he needs to pump the brakes the next time he wants to break balls over whatever longstanding problem he suddenly decides needs to be eradicated. The fact that Tagliabue sent the message in a 22-page document that has been disclosed for the media to study makes it even more of a slap by the master to his former servant.
Hopefully, Goodell will be able to set aside the public nature of the friendly scolding and draw from Tagliabue’s words the lessons that will help the league office deal with similar problems effectively and properly in the future. Though that may eventually occur, in the short term it’s safe to assume that Goodell will read Tagliabue’s words and privately seethe.