In a sharp rebuke to his successor's handling of the NFL's bounty investigation, former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players in a case that has preoccupied the league for almost a year.
Tagliabue, who was appointed by Commissioner Roger Goodell to handle the appeals, still found that three of the players engaged in conduct detrimental to the league. He said they participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays — including bone-jarring hits — that could merit fines. But he stressed that the team's coaches were very much involved.
The entire case, he said, "has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
The team's "coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation," the ruling said.
Tagliabue oversaw a second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been given a full-season suspension, while defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove each received shorter suspensions.
Tagliabue cleared Fujita of conduct detrimental to the league.
"I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players. I conclude that Hargrove, Smith and Vilma — but not Fujita — engaged in 'conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football,'" the ruling said.
"However, for the reasons set forth in this decision, I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players. Although I vacate all suspensions, I fully considered but ultimately rejected reducing the suspensions to fines of varying degrees for Hargrove, Smith and Vilma. My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However ... this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints organization," it said.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees offered his thoughts on Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
None of the players sat out any games because of suspensions. They have been allowed to play while appeals are pending, though Fujita is on injured reserve and Hargrove is not with a team.
Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, and now those have been dismissed.
Now, with the player suspensions overturned, the end could be near for a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and gathered about 50,000 pages of documents.
"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the NFL said in a statement.
"The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the (NFL's collective bargaining agreement) to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."
Meanwhile, the players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court, but U.S District Judge Ginger Berrigan had been waiting for the latest round of appeals to play out before deciding whether to get involved.
NFL investigators found that Vilma and Smith were ring leaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts." The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program.
Goodell also suspended Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season.
Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFL Players Association, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses. Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being "a dirty organization," jump-started the probe.
"We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result," the players' union said in a statement. "We are pleased that Paul Tagliabue, as the appointed hearings officer, agreed with the NFL Players Association that previously issued discipline was inappropriate in the matter of the alleged New Orleans Saints bounty program.
"Vacating all discipline affirms the players' unwavering position that all allegations the League made about their alleged 'intent-to-injure' were utterly and completely false.
"We are happy for our members."
A statement released on Vilma's behalf said the linebacker is "relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension.
"On the other hand, Commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of Commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day."