In a stunning turn of events, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has vacated the suspensions of four players – Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove – who were involved in the Saints’ alleged bounty program that the NFL believes ran from 2009-11.
Tagliabue, who was appointed by current commissioner Roger Goodell to hear the appeal, said in a statement issued by the league that a bounty program did exist but that the “entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization.”
“Unlike the Saints’ broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects,” Tagliabue said. “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.”
The NFL said in a statement released on Twitter that it accepts Tagliabue’s rendering.
“We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters,” the statement said. “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.”
Vilma’s attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said his client plans to pursue a defamation lawsuit.
“Jonathan intends to continue to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation,” Ginsberg told NFL.com's Albert Breer. “We're pleased that the unjust penalties have been overturned, but this is only one piece in remedying the situation for Jonathan.”
An NFL investigation determined that Vilma and Smith were the leaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded players who caused “cart-offs” and “knockouts” of players from opposing teams. The NFL charged that Vilma, who had initially been suspended the entire season, offered a $10,000 bounty on Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the 2009 NFC Championship Game.
The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program. The players have been allowed to play while the appeals were pending. Fujita, now with the Browns, is on injured reserve. Hargrove, who was released by the Packers, is not with a club. Vilma and Smith are still with the Saints.
Tagliabue’s hearing included testimony from Vilma’s attorneys and the NFL Players Association, all of whom cross-examined witnesses that included former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former Saints assistant coach Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season.