Nearly nine months after the NFL announced it had evidence demonstrating that the New Orleans Saints engaged in a pay-for-play program, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four players allegedly involved in the program. In making his determination, Tagliabue acknowledged that three of the four players engaged in “conduct detrimental to the league” and that current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell could have punished this conduct with fines. However, Tagliabue’s decision to overturn the players’ suspensions appears to rest heavily upon his findings that it was team personnel and coaches who were at the helm of the pay-for-play program, rather than players.
Tagliabue’s findings are notable, because they were likely determined by a logic that was dictated by his professional background. Tagliabue is an attorney. It was likely Tagliabue’s legal background and a legal doctrine learned during the first year of law school which likely guided him in reaching his decision today.
The doctrine which Tagliabue likely relied upon is called respondeat superior. Under the theory of respondeat superior, an employer is responsible for the actions of an employee that are performed within the employee’s scope of employment. Respondeat superior allows a third-party wronged by the acts of the employee to commence legal actions against the employee and its employer. Arguably, the actions allegedly committed under the alleged pay-for-play scheme occurred within the scope of the Saints players’ employment. Tagliabue likely found that unless Saints coaches and personnel were allegedly encouraging the players to engage in the pay-for-play program, that they would have been unlikely to have done so themselves. While using respondeat superior as an approach to decide the case before him would have arguably allowed Tagliabue to find both the Saints personnel/coaches and players liable, it appears that Tagliabue found that the players were merely just following their principals’ orders.
Tagliabue’s findings today present some concerning possibilities. By vacating the players’ suspensions in their entirety, Tagliabue arguably sent the message that players do not need to fear suspensions when they follow their coaches’ orders–regardless of how dangerous those orders might be. This possible precedent is somewhat scary, as coaches may recognize that they can push the limits when it comes to what they ask players to do, and only risk their own career stability. Arguably, this in and of itself would prevent most coaches from engaging in the type of behavior that allegedly occurred in New Orleans. However, for those whereupon the pressure to win is great enough, today’s ruling might give them enough of an incentive to move forward with dangerous plans.