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Bounty suspensions will now go back to the Commissioner

Roger Goodell

FILE - This May 22, 2012 file photo shows NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell during a new conference in Atlanta. The appeals hearing for four players suspended by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for their role in the Saints bounty program has begun. On hand at NFL headquarters Monday, June 18, 2012, are all four players: Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who is suspended for the 2012 season, and defensive end Will Smith, who has been docked for four games; Green Bay defensive end Anthony Hargrove, suspended for eight games; and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita (three games). (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

AP

The players suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell for involvement in the Saints bounty suspension rightfully have claimed victory.

For now.

Inspection of the four-page summary decision signed by Richard J. Howell on behalf of a unanimous three-person panel reveals that the case will now go back to Goodell. The panel decided that, based on the various overlapping jurisdictions of Goodell and the “System Arbitrator” and others under the labor deal, it’s unclear that the suspensions imposed by Goodell fall within his jurisdiction, and not the jurisdiction of the “System Arbitrator.”

(Confused yet? So are we.)

Actually, it’s not that complicated. The CBA gives different people different responsibility for sorting out different types of disputes. Here, the arbitration panel decided it’s not entirely clear whether Goodell imposed the suspensions under his authority to prevent conduct detrimental to the game or whether he infringed on the exclusive power of the “System Arbitrator” to penalize violations of the salary cap, arising from the fact that money potentially changed hands in connection with the pay-for-performance/bounty program.

“While we agree, then, that the Commissioner had jurisdiction to discipline the Players in this case, we are uncertain that the discipline handed down was attributable, in any part, to that aspect of the Program which lies within the exclusive jurisdiction of the System Arbitrator,” Howell writes. “While we could speculate, it is not clear from the record before us whether had the distinction we draw in mind at the time he disciplined the players.”

It all could, in time, end up in the same place. For now, however, the panel has opted to be careful. “In light of the serious nature of the penalties imposed,” Howell writes, “we believe caution is appropriate.”

Though the NFL eventually may win the war, losing this battle will have an enormous P.R. impact. People will view the Commissioner’s authority as being less than what it may be, and internally the blame will fall on the lawyers who failed to properly draw the lines when drawing up the penalties.