Delivering a sharp rebuke to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over his handling of the Saints' alleged bounty program, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue Tuesday overturned all four player suspensions imposed by Goodell.
Tagliabue, whom Goodell appointed to hear appeals from the players, affirmed Goodell's findings that the Saints operated a bounty program from 2009-11. But Tagliabue's decision to vacate the suspensions indicates he thinks Goodell overreached in handing down such harsh sanctions.
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Goodell initially suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the 2012 season, while former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove was suspended eight games. Saints defensive end Will Smith drew a four-game suspension, and linebacker Scott Fujita, who is on injured reserve with the Browns, received a three-game ban.
Tagliabue said in a 22-page statement that all the players except Fujita engaged in conduct detrimental to the league for their roles in the bounty program. But Tagliabue also said the "entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
The Saints' "coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation," Tagliabue wrote. He also said evidence suggests Vilma placed a $10,000 bounty on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre before the NFC Championship Game in January 2010.
Unlike a previous appeal in front of Goodell, Tagliabue let players' attorneys cross-examine witnesses, including former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former assistant coach Mike Cerullo.
"I affirm commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players," Tagliabue wrote. "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.' "
Vilma will press on with his defamation suit against Goodell, according to his attorney, Peter Ginsberg.
"We are relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension," Ginsberg said in a statement. "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.
" . . . We call upon commissioner Tagliabue to release the transcripts of the proceedings held before him so that they are available as we go forward."
Tagliabue's ruling does not affect the status of coach Sean Payton (suspended for the season); Williams (suspended indefinitely) or interim head coach Joe Vitt, who served a six-game ban.
A statement by the NFL said: "We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters. The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program for three years and that the commissioner has the authority under the CBA to impose discipline for conduct detrimental to the league. Strong action was taken to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football.''