Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue announced his ruling in the New Orleans Saints bounty case and has vacated all player discipline previously issued by current commissioner Roger Goodell.
Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita were all suspended by Goodell in May for their roles in the bounty program from 2009-2011. Vilma had been suspended for the entire 2012 season, while Hargrove was originally given an eight-game penalty. Smith was banned for four games and Fujita was slapped with a three-game suspension.
The suspensions were overturned by an appeals panel in September, then re- issued by Goodell -- with slight modifications -- in October. Another appeal led to Tagliabue's appointment, and he decided to overturn the suspensions after reviewing the case.
Tagliabue, in a statement released Tuesday, affirmed the league's findings in the investigation, the results of which were first released back in March, but determined the Saints' organization deserved more of the blame and not the players.
"Unlike the Saints' broad organizational misconduct, the player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects," Tagliabue said in the statement.
"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.'
"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.
"Moreover, there is evidence in the record that suggests that commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints players for the events that occurred here. This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light."
Saints head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire 2012 season and then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely for their roles in the program.
Also, Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended without pay for the first eight regular-season games and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended without pay for the first six. Vitt was named the Saints' interim head coach in Payton's absence for the 2012 season.
The Saints also forfeited second-round draft picks in 2012 and '13 and were fined $500,000.
Tagliabue interviewed all four players, as well as other key witnesses that included members of the Saints' coaching staff at the time.
The NFL didn't dispute Tagliabue's ruling in its response Tuesday.
"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the statement began. "This matter has now been reviewed by commissioner Goodell, two CBA grievance arbitrators, the CBA Appeals Panel, and Mr. Tagliabue as commissioner Goodell's designated appeals officer.
"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 CBA 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."
Each of the four players were permitted to play while the appeals process continued.
Vilma was hurt to begin the season and rejoined the Saints in late October, while Smith has played all 13 games for New Orleans. Fujita played four games for Cleveland this season before a neck problem forced him to injured reserve, while Hargrove remains a free agent who has not played this year.
The NFLPA also commented on the ruling in a statement Tuesday.
"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."