NEW ORLEANS — 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, 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 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 to 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.
Vilma said in a text to ESPN that he still intends to pursue his defamation case against Goodell.
"I'm pleased that Paul vacated the suspensions. If (U.S. District) Judge (Ginger) Berrigan allows, I now look forward to pursuing my defamation suit against Roger Goodell."
In his ruling, Tagliabue agreed there is evidence that suggests Vilma placed a $10,000 bounty onBrett Favre before the Saints faced the Minnesota Vikings in the 2010 NFC Championship Game.
When asked about this, Vilma said in a text that Tagliabue "ignores the totality of the situation. Goodell publicly stated I helped create the program and I waved $10K for Kurt Warner. It's not about just Favre."
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, applauded Tagliabue's decision and called on Goodell to release the transcripts of the hearings.
"We are obviously 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," Ginsberg said.
"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," the statement continued. "We call upon Commissioner Tagliabue to release the transcripts of the proceedings held before him so that they are available as we go forward."
The NFL said Tuesday afternoon in a statement: "We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters. 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.