The NFL was likely pleased when it discovered, revealed and punished those involved with the New Orleans Saints’ bounty system. The league was able to show its firm stance against injurious rule breaking by severely punishing participants in the pay-for-pain system. Players, coaches and general manager Mickey Loomis have been suspended for a total of 61 games, and that doesn’t include the indefinite suspension of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. It is the costliest punishment in the history of professional sports, and the league received plaudits and great PR by taking such a hard stance against those involved. But Saints players have fought back against the league’s ruling, and the ongoing legal fracas is quickly becoming an immense headache for the NFL.
It was revealed today that the NFL Players Association is suing Roger Goodell and the NFL over the league’s discipline of Anthony Hargrove, Scott Fujita and Will Smith; Jonathan Vilma, the fourth suspended player, has already filed two lawsuits of his own. Vilma is suspended for all of next season, while Hargrove will miss eight games, Smith four and Fujita three. The NFLPA alleges that Goodell acted unfairly and in violation of the league’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) by announcing the players’ guilt before hearing their cases. The NFLPA’s lawsuit calls Goodell “incurably and evidently biased,” and it labels the league’s investigation and subsequent arbitration “a sham.”
Jonathan Vilma first sued Goodell in May, accusing the NFL commissioner of defamation of character. He filed a second lawsuit last weekend, which alleges that Goodell took too long to make his appeal ruling and that the league has withheld the vast majority of the evidence against Vilma and the other suspended players. Goodell filed a motion to dismiss Vilma’s defamation suit earlier today, and the NFL also released a statement by email responding to the NFLPA’s lawsuit. The league’s response, in part:
“As in the case of Mr. Vilma’s lawsuit, this is an improper attempt to litigate an issue that is committed to a collectively bargained process. There is no basis for asking a federal court to put its judgment in place of the procedures agreed upon with the NFLPA in collective bargaining. These procedures have been in place, and have served the game and players well, for many decades.
In short, the NFL believes that the players already agreed to the league’s form of discipline when they signed the CBA. The final ruling will come down to the language of the CBA, which grants Goodell the ability to punish any conduct viewed as detrimental to the league. But even if Goodell and the NFL win in each case brought against them, the legal firestorm is quickly eroding the goodwill initially built up by outing the Saints’ bounty scandal. Goodell is being portrayed as a tyrannical judge and jury, and more bad PR is the last thing the league needs while it contends with an NFLPA lawsuit for collusion and the more than 2,000 former players who have brought concussion-related lawsuits against the NFL.
Even the bounty-related suits aren’t the only problem lately caused by Saints players. An arbitrator ruled against the NFL on Tuesday in the case of Drew Brees’ franchise tag. Brees had filed a grievance against the league over how much he would be owed should the Saints apply the franchise tag to him in 2013. Stephen Burbank found that if Brees is tagged in the 2013 season, it will be his third time under the label. The Saints first tagged Brees earlier this season to prevent him from becoming a free agent, but Burbank’s ruling takes into account that the San Diego Chargers tagged Brees in 2005 and that the league’s CBA accounts for any previous tags, regardless of team. It’s a serious blow to the Saints, with whom the NFL had sided, because the team will owe Brees an additional $4 million should they tag him again in 2013, bringing the total cost up to $40 million guaranteed over two seasons.
The NFL, to put it bluntly, is under siege. The game’s image is quickly warping, especially as the lasting health impacts of on-field hits become increasingly clear. Recent tragedies like the suicides of Dave Duerson and Junior Seau have also put a pall over the league and have threatened to push away the game’s fans. The league has quite the headache to contend with, especially as the Saints’ legal free-for-all drags on through the summer, and there may not be an aspirin pill big enough to handle it all.
New Orleans Saints Are Becoming The NFL's Biggest Headache - Forbes