In the New Orleans Saints Bounty Scandal, Evidence Mattered

Posted on by Townsend Myers

Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced on Tuesday that all suspensions and penalties for Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, along with former linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, have been vacated.

In vacating the punishment Tagliabue noted the lack of any real evidence of any bounty system, and in doing so seemed to acknowledge a basic principal of law and justice: in order to be found guilty of an wrongful act, there has to be some evidence of wrongdoing.

Said the former commissioner:

“Was any bounty pledged serious? Was it inspirational only? Was it typical ‘trash talk’ that occurs regularly before and during games? The parties presented no clear answers. No witness could confirm whether Vilma had any money in his hands as he spoke; no evidence was presented that $10,000 was available to him for purposes of paying a bounty or otherwise. There was no evidence that Vilma or anyone else paid any money to any player for any bounty-related hit on an opposing player in the Vikings game.”

He continued:

“I cannot, however, uphold a multi-game suspension where there is no evidence that a player’s speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine. Nor can I find justified a suspension where Williams and other Saints’ personnel so carefully crafted an environment that would encourage and allow a player to make such an ill-advised and imprudent offer. I therefore vacate the suspension of Jonathan Vilma.”

The FULL DECISION can be read here.

It is heartening to hear such strong words from the former commissioner. As a Saints fan and a criminal defense attorney in New Orleans, I was always struck by the fact that serious discipline had been levied based essentially on innuendo and rumor. Of course, the standard of proof in the bounty scandal was never going to be as high as the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard in criminal court, but certainly there must need to be some proof.

Tagliabue reached the conclusion that there was in fact no proof, and as such no punishment could stand. It was not just a victory for the Saints players and Saints fans, but also a victory for the idea of justice, and the role competent evidence must play in the legal system.

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