Paul Tagliabue was the NFL Commissioner who didn’t cast a shadow. He came, he went, things happened, the company didn’t fold. He was the devoted shadowless company man. Victory through stasis had been achieved.
But when he was called from the bullpen to provide Roger Goodell with the expected slam-dunk ruling on BountyGate, affirming all details and punishments as a good company man should, he casually flipped a fragmentation grenade into Red Top’s brief case.
He affirmed the facts of the case, and then declared that the players had essentially been acting on orders of their superiors and vacated their punishments. This is a stunning precedent and a reversal of Goodell’s core tenet that the players are guilty until proven guiltier.
And we can only assume that the new commissioner is fulminating about the old commissioner. This is not the work of a good company man.
[RELATED: Tagliabue overturns BountyGate suspensions]
It is in many ways the most just outcome. It does not exonerate the players, who participated in the bounty system, but it establishes the heretofore avoided precedent that when team officials suggest/hint/say/require players to break established rules, those players are put in an impossible situation and cannot be held to the same standard as their superiors.
And team officials across the league are flooding Goodell with calls today saying, “WHAT THE FLYING FLAMING HELL DID HE JUST DO TO US? WE’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR OUR MISDEEDS? THAT’S NOT THE DEAL WE SIGNED ON FOR, SKIPPY. WE DON’T TAKE BLAME, WE DELEGATE IT.”
That’s the part that fascinates. Not that the most sensible decision given the circumstances was reached, but that one of the company boys, safe from the daily strictures of the company, broke ranks with the company.
Nobody was more company than Tags, to be sure. Pete Rozelle’s confidant and best positioned underling, he worked his job, and even though he lost the biggest fight he ever had, the one that allowed Al Davis to move the Raiders to Los Angeles, he was the logical inheritor when Rozelle left the job in 1989, worn down by the loss to Davis and the strains of beating back the WFL and USFL.
And he took the job, providing Brezhnevian leadership – neither dynamic nor particularly forceful. He had the job for 17 years, and other than not doing anything to prevent the golden goose from providing regular breakfast, it is hard to say what his footprint on the league was.
It is hard to say that no longer. He became the truly objective arbiter of a thorny problem – to find the place where suggestion becomes insistence, and whether a player has the freedom to resist pressure to break a rule or rules.
His decision was a bold half-step toward resolution. The players can do wrong, but when it is accompanied by pressure, either stated or implied, their culpability does not automatically come with punishment.
In other words, he honored the time-old maxim, “If the coach tells you to do it, you do it. You do it if you like it, and you do it if you don’t. Because that’s the culture, that’s always been the culture, and it will always be the culture.”
And he changed the other maxim, “In the NFL, the employer is always right, damn it.”
So it goes. A company man has broken programming, and behind him, the man who replaced him is slamming the desk drawer against his head over and over again. It is the only reasonable reaction when someone in power finds out that “the enemy is us.”
Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com