"Round up the usual suspects."
Funny how that line near the end of "Casablanca" provides a fitting epitaph for Bountygate, too. Like Captain Renault in the film classic, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue was presented with a crime and empowered as both judge and jury. He considered the evidence, weighed the injury to the parties involved, then concluded - conveniently - that no further action was required. Justice had already been served.
Tagliabue's reasoning was torturous, but the result was fair. He decided the two Saints players who took part in a cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011, and a third who assisted in trying to cover it up, had suffered enough, commuting the suspensions to time served and erased their fines. And he cleared Scott Fujita, who'd maintained his innocence all along.
Just as important, Tagliabue affirmed current commissioner Roger Goodell's findings of fact in the case, even if he didn't agree with the ham-handed way the punishments were doled out. Tagliabue knew his successor didn't need any more challenges to his reputation or authority at the moment, not with back-to-back tragedies casting a shadow over the league's last two weekends and concussion-related lawsuits piling up outside the door to his office. Most important, Tagliabue knew the people at the top of the Saints organisation who were responsible for the bounty scheme - general manager Mickey Loomis, coach Sean Peyton, Williams and several others; in this case, "the usual suspects" - were already serving time, banished from the league for varying lengths of time and slapped with heavy fines.
Goodell isn't completely in the clear, either. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, whom Goodell hit the hardest, said he would press ahead his defamation lawsuit against the commissioner, which only seems fair.
What Williams did wasn't all that different from what coaches have been doing since football was invented. He just kept better records, bragged about it too often and loudly, and despite repeated warnings, his bosses in the locker room and the front office didn't see fit to shut it down. About the fourth or fifth time Williams handed out cash for big hits, or launched into one of his "kill the head" pep talks, it was only natural to assume that was the company policy. That the players "just sat and nodded at Williams instead of calling a crisis intervention hotline," as one writer put it, "was not grounds to take away their livelihood for long periods of time."
The surprise here isn't Tagliabue's decision. It was clear months ago that Goodell didn't have the goods. The real surprise, ultimately, is that Tagliabue got to decide the case at all.
Goodell reluctantly agreed to an appeal of the appeal , likely thinking that if anyone would understand his rationale, it would be the guy who once sat in his seat. The union initially opposed Tagliabue's selection for that very reason, fearing he was too invested in the league's business to be a fair arbiter. Turns out they were both wrong.