If you follow the National Football League, you probably know about the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. In short, some of the players on the team were pooling money for big hits and injuries to opposing players. The result was a swath of suspensions for the players and coaches involved in the scandal. It left the Saints fractured as a team, and a lot of the people involved in an unhappy and uncertain situation.
In reviewing the appeal in the case, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced this week that he was vacating the punishment set forth by current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on the players while confirming much of the finding of facts with how the bounty program ran in purpose.
Some people are admittedly confused by such a ruling and think the NFL is taking the easy way out. How could the players be wrong but still get off?
If you’ve worked for any time in human resources though, you’ve probably seen this issue come up on occasion. And at least from my point of view, the result is neither surprising nor particularly odd.
This excellent piece on Deadspin gives you a flavor for where I’m going with this:
Tagliabue’s ruling, by contrast, comes from an alternate NFL universe in which the flaws in the case actually matter, and the arbiter’s self-calibrated disappointment level is not determinative of the outcome. Fujita’s actions, as the ex-commissioner explains, were neither surprising nor disappointing. Now that the league has admitted there’s no evidence the linebacker paid cash for “cart-offs,” his behavior is no different than that of other players who reward their teammates off the books. Tagliabue points to similar cases involving the Packers and Patriots in 2007 and 2008 in which the teams, not players, were punished (with small fines, not suspensions) for pay-for-performance pools. “Accordingly, the NFL’s decision to suspend a player here for participating in a program for which the League typically fines a club certainly raises significant issues regarding inconsistent treatment
Indeed, inconsistency in punishment is just one way that an employee can be both incorrect in action but not necessarily get punished, at least not to the degree that he was.
In the other, more severe cases, Saints players were told to lie by their own coaches about the bounty program to NFL investigators. When the truth was found out, the players were not only punished for their actions but also for the act of lying in the course of an investigation (something that seemed to carry a much more severe disciplinary action).
In another case, simply being a player-leader was enough to warrant additional disciplinary action to be taken into consideration. That’s more inconsistency into a process. And those reasons are why the players in this case will walk with no more than a fine (if even that).
Tagliabue saved his harshest criticism for the Saints team and NFL officials, including commissioner Roger Goodell. While the players should have known better and they should have put an end to it, the conduct of the New Orleans Saints as an organization severely influenced the actions of those who were involved in the bounty system. I’ve had bad bosses who pulled down an entire department with them. If you cut off the head, the snake dies. The failure of oversight was on the Saints organization but a disproportion amount of the blame were laid on the players.
And that’s where the commissioner’s office got it wrong according to Tagliabue. They punished individuals for an organization’s failure. Were they innocent in their own right? No, but they were at a distinct disadvantage with coaches calling the shots. And while lying may be problematic in an investigation, it is even more problematic that coaches were asking players to cover up key facts and that, with union representation, players are not encouraged to implicate themselves.
The lesson here is a tough one for people who believed the players should have faced more responsibility for their actions. It should be a lesson for anyone who has to head up an investigation on an internal dispute. You don’t get justice through a broken process or through punishing employees beyond precedent because you want to send a message.
With a little hindsight (or, if I may, Monday Morning Quarterbacking), it is easy to see that Goodell would have been justified in throwing all of his office’s firepower at the Saints’ organizational leadership. In fact, as an organization, you should always feel free to err on the side of holding those in leadership positions responsible. Individual punishment should be taken when a person works inappropriately outside of the company norm, not within a badly constructed company norm.
In short, you can’t be wrong for the right reasons and still expect your discipline to stick. While the NFL was right in the facts of the case, their understanding of power structures, precedent and the inducement of organizational pressure failed them. In the end, the players reputation will suffer but none as much as the NFL and the Saints will endure.