NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s pending suspensions of four players for their alleged participation in the New Orleans Saints’ “bounty” system—in which money was pooled in order to reward defenders for injury-causing hits on opponents—were overturned on appeal this afternoon. Now, the only penalties left standing are those against Saints coaches and executives and the franchise itself, which had to give up half a million dollars and draft picks. (The fans have been punished in another, indirect way: The Saints, at 5-8, have been all but mathematically eliminated from the playoffs for the first season since 2008, in no small part because they have been without suspended head coach Sean Payton.)
If Goodell were seen as a mild, self-effacing servant dedicated to tidily stewarding America’s biggest sport, today’s ruling might merely be seen as a welcome correction to a well-intentioned, honest mistake. Instead, Goodell has responded to important revelations about head trauma by policing player conduct with all the zeal of Javert and none of the precision, and so this overturning can fairly be viewed as a rebuke. Moreover, given that the person doing the overturning was not some neutrally appointed outside counsel, but Paul Tagliabue—Goodell’s immediate predecessor as commissioner, who had been selected by Goodell himself to hear the appeal—the whole thing is little short of an embarrassment.
Tagliabue did not call Goodell a liar; in fact, he affirmed Goodell's factual findings. He also found that three of the four players had committed finable offenses—linebacker Scott Fujita, who rewarded teammates for big plays not involving injuries, was exonerated—but decided that “this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization,” and therefore punishing those three, while justifiable, was not the right thing to do. (If you are confused, the players union’s response will not help: “Vacating all discipline affirms the players’ unwavering position that all allegations the league made about their alleged 'intent to injure' were utterly and completely false,” it said today in a statement, inaccurately summarizing the letter of the ruling but accurately summarizing its spirit.)
“We respect Mr. Tagliabue’s decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters,” the league said in a statement. That is a point worth stressing: The system worked, in that the players weren’t ultimately punished. But, as Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted today, “Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back.” That is, Tagliabue’s ruling hardly erases the allegations themselves—and the damage they’ve done to the players' reputations, on and off the field. Just as important, however, is the damage done to Goodell over this “Bountygate” saga. Without getting too much into the weeds of it, let’s note that the ruling Tagliabue overturned today was actually the second bounty ruling Goodell made this year; the first, which was thrown out over a technicality, was even harsher, and even falser—among other things, it found that Fujita contributed to the injury-related pool.
This is humiliating not only for the commissioner, but for the league itself. Though at the peak of its popularity, the NFL is in existential trouble: There is something fundamentally rotten in the sport itself, the repeatedly violent collisions of which are proving inseparable from permanent brain damage. If football is going to heal itself, it will require both creativity and authority from the top. Goodell has so far proven adept at getting good press—witness this week’s fawning, complacent Time cover story—but his overcompensating, scattershot attempts at making the game safer have evinced little creativity and eroded his own authority. In short, the commissioner’s office is losing prestige and credibility at the very moment the sport needs it most.