When we heard about the Saints bounty scandal, we were shocked by the Saints bounty scandal.
When we heard how severely Roger Goodell punished the players allegedly involved in the Saints bounty scandal, we were shocked at how swiftly and dictatorially he exercised his power.
When Jonathan Vilma proclaimed his innocence and appealed his suspensions in the Saints bounty scandal, even after Goodell provided token sentence reductions, we were shocked that anyone would dare continue to battle such swift, dictatorial power.
When Goodell hired former commissioner Paul Tagliabue as an independent arbiter to hear the appeals of Vilma and other players in the Saints bounty scandal, we were shocked that Goodell would so callously play lip-service to the concept of checks and balances by hiring a perceived ex-crony. It looked like a calculated effort to win the appeals, and thereby gain even more dictatorial power.
Now that Tagliabue vacated all of the suspensions, essentially closing the book on the Saints bounty scandal as it applies to players … well, we don't even know what to be shocked about anymore.
Tagliabue vacated the suspensions of Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita on Tuesday afternoon. In a statement by NFL Spokesperson Greg Aiello, Tagliabue affirmed the "factual findings" of the league investigation but found that those facts were not enough to justify suspensions that ranged from four weeks to one full season.
Per Tagliabue, via Aiello: "Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects." In other words, when Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams gave long speeches about "killing the head" off specific opponents, it was grounds for suspensions at the coaching and management level. When players received cash payments from a "big-play fund" that may or may not have been for injurious hits, or made off the cuff tough-guy remarks, or just sat and nodded at Williams instead of calling a crisis intervention hotline, it was not grounds to take away their livelihood for long periods of time.
Which is, of course, common sense. But this was the first time that common sense has reared its head in the Saints bounty scandal since we first heard that Williams liked to give violently-specific speeches, and that players may or may not have earned cash rewards for knocking Brett Favre of Kurt Warner out of games.
The NFL's handling of the investigation and suspension process was suspicious from the moment it extended its net from coaches (who must be held to a higher standard on player safety issues) to players. The penalties against Vilma and others were downright vindictive, and tangible evidence against them was scant. The NFL coyly leaked circumstantial evidence. It led the players through a mockery of an appeal process in which Goodell acted as his own prosecutor. He lessened their suspensions, infinitesimally, the benevolent emperor allowing a clean beheading in favor of a messy crucifixion. When the players appealed the appeal, Tagliabue appeared as a new obstacle to slalom around. Vilma won the temporary right to return to the field, and the NFL scheduled his hearing concurrent with the one Thursday night game on the Saints schedule, making life as inconvenient as possible for him. If the league could have fixed it so Vilma got on the wrong flight and missed a scheduled hearing date, they would have done it.
And now, suddenly, justice of some kind has been served. The players were not exonerated, but Tagliabue has ruled that their punishment in no way fit their crime. Not that we are even sure what their crime was.
Tagliabue's ruling was a hair-split, a "mistakes were made and actions were regretted" piece of passive-aggressive legalese, but it contain a clear admission: Roger Goodell did something wrong. He overstepped his power. He penalized players for reasons that did not have to do with their actions or the strength of the evidence against them, but for public relations, or power consolidation, or just because he is as likely as any of us to get carried away, but he has the ability to take a heck of a lot more people with him.
Tagliabue's ruling asserts that there are limits to Goodell's power, and that there are people close to Goodell willing to admit that and to do something about it.
That's what should now have us shocked.