Tuesday’s ruling from Commissioner Paul Tagliabue proves that players have due process — as long as they are willing to fight tooth and nail for it.
And the ability of the players to push back against the NFL via the protections under the CBA and federal law flows from their union status. Coaches like Sean Payton, Joe Vitt, and Gregg Williams don’t have a union to support them, and so they didn’t have the ability to force the kind of fair hearing that the players eventually received.
This isn’t to say that the coaches should have escaped suspensions. But when reading portions of Tagliabue’s ruling regarding the proper way to change culture or to prove a connection between tough talk and dirty deeds, it’s hard to imagine that a one-year suspension would have been upheld for Sean Payton, who has been kicked out of the sport for a year because he failed to supervise his defensive coordinator, and because Payton said once the investigation was launched that the assistant coaches should “make sure our ducks in a row.”
In fairness to Payton, “making sure our ducks are in a row” doesn’t necessarily mean “making sure our lies are in a row.” Lawyers routinely prepare witnesses before hearings and trials not with the goal of suborning perjury but of ensuring that an inadvertent misstatement of fact doesn’t provide the opposition with an unintended “gotcha” moment.
Even if Payton was telling the coaches to lie about the existence of a bounty program, the lack of an obvious connection between words and on-field misconduct coupled with the realities that made pay-for-performance programs an accepted part of NFL culture arguably make a one-year suspension for Payton too much.
But since Payton had too little protection, it’s too late to do anything about it.