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 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 Saints 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 co-ordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed Tagliabue's 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.'
"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."
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.
"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."
-- The Associated Press