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Goodell defends protecting confidential witnesses


[Editor’s note: The eight-page, single-spaced letter from Commissioner Roger Goodell affirming the suspensions of the four players accused of involvement in the Saints’ bounty program raises several intriguing points, arguments, and circumstances. We’re breaking them up into separate posts, in the hopes no one takes out a bounty on me.]

Like many other investigations, the Saints bounty investigation received a significant boost from the assistance of one or more people who provided information on a confidential basis. Unlikely many other investigations, the NFL has allowed those persons to remain confidential, even though one or more eventually became key sources of information on which important conclusions were based.

In the bounty case, the whistleblower didn’t simply provide the spark that resurrected a cold case and enabled the league to obtain confessions from the coaches who were involved. Instead, the whistleblower ultimately provided information on which the league relied extensively in concluding that players who denied any involvement in a bounty program were guilty.

The league maintained the secrecy of the whistleblower throughout the appeal process, and Commissioner Roger Goodell defended this approach in the July 3 letter upholding the suspensions imposed against four players, arguing that “there should be no issue” regarding the NFL’s reliance on confidential sources.

“Affording confidentiality to players or others seeking to remain anonymous in these and similar circumstances -- and securing their candid assessment of the issues, free from peer pressure and other impediments -- serves the interests of maintaining the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football,” Goodell wrote. “Failure to provide such confidentiality would discourage future potential whistleblowers from coming forward.”

That’s not entirely accurate (though it’s ironic given that the league-owned network encouraged Warren Sapp to speculate on the air that former Saints tight end Jeremy Shockey was the “snitch”). Whistleblowers who become witnesses are entitled to protection against retaliation; they’re not entitled to a lifetime of secrecy. Affording permanent anonymity to whistleblowers who never face accountability for their words can actually undermine the “integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football” by creating an opportunity to tell lies that ultimately go untested, because the persons about whom the confidential witness is lying will never even know who it is who has made the false allegations.

If the league hopes to promote the “integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football,” the processes employed for publicly stigmatizing players and stripping them of significant chunks of their livelihood must include basic safeguards to ensure that the league is relying on information that is truthful, accurate, and untainted by bias or improper motives. It’s impossible to know how much of the information provided by the confidential witness(es) in this case are truthful, accurate, and untainted by bias or improper motives because we don’t even know who they are.

The better approach would be to rely on anonymous tips to initiate the investigation and to guide it in the right direction. Any evidence that provides the basis for discipline against players or non-players should come from persons who are willing to attach their names to the allegations, so that any players or non-players who dispute those claims will know who and what they are confronting.

If the anonymous tipster isn’t willing to step out of the shadows, even when given assurances that the league will react swiftly and aggressively if the whistleblower-turned-witness experiences retaliation, that should be a red flag regarding the overall reliability of the information that has been provided while tucked safely behind the proverbial curtain of a third-world courtroom.