- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 12, 2012

“Round up the usual suspects.”

Funny how that line near the end of “Casablanca” provides a fitting epitaph for Bountygate, too. Like Capt. 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 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 organization 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 Tuesday he would press ahead his defamation lawsuit against the commissioner, which only seems fair. I wrote back in May that Goodell “better have the goods,” and that “somewhere in the 50,000 pages of documents related to the Saints bounty program better be some compelling evidence that it was much more organized and way more vicious than anything the NFL had ever seen. Otherwise, the punishment he’s doled out already has exceeded the crime.”

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.”

Tagliabue agreed. But with Goodell facing an increasingly rebellious players’ union in just the second year of a 10-year collective bargaining agreement, his predecessor saw no reason to limit the commissioner’s discretionary powers.

“To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines,” his ruling said.

Tagliabue also concurred that the Saints organization deserved to be punished severely, and had been. Not just for allowing Williams to rant on and run and his little “performance” pool unchecked for several seasons, but for trying to impede the league’s investigation at every turn along the way. Unlike his players, Williams‘ bosses quit fighting and fessed up. Bet they wish now, like the players, they had a union, too.

The surprise here isn’t Tagliabue’s decision. It was clear months ago, despite selective excerpts from the league’s voluminous files, that Goodell didn’t have the goods to take the unilateral actions he did. And that was only reinforced by the sham of an appeals process that wound its way back to his desk. The real surprise, ultimately, is that Tagliabue got to decide the case at all.

Goodell agreed to an appeal of the appeal with considerable reluctance, likely thinking that if anyone would understand his rationale, it would the guy who once sat in the same 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 both got it wrong.

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.