NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will step aside from the bounty penalty process, the league said Friday, allowing former commissioner Paul Tagliabue to step in as the judge in the appeals hearings in New York.
NFL Players Association President DeMaurice Smith first announced the move Friday shortly before 1 p.m. via Twitter.
In a statement released by the league, Goodell said the decision to put Tagliabue in charge was to 'bring this matter to a prompt and fair conclusion.'
'Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters,' Goodell said. 'He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity.'
'To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter nor has he been any part of the process. Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings. I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue's decisions.'
Saints defensive end Will Smith, the team's NFLPA player representative and one of the four suspended by Goodell, declined comment in the locker room Friday. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was suspended for the entire season and who is suing Goodell for defamation, was unavailable for comment.
Under the rules of the newest collective bargaining agreement ratified in July 2011, Goodell has authority to punish for conduct detrimental to the league and hear appeals of those punishments.
In addition to Vilma and Smith, former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita was given three games and former defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove eight.
After a three-member appeals panel overturned Goodell's original ruling, the commissioner re-established penalties for the four, keeping Vilma's and Smith's suspensions the same while reducing Hargrove's and Fujita's suspensions.
All four appealed and were set to meet with Goodell in the NFL's New York City offices on Tuesday. But now they'll meet with Tagliabue, the NFL commissioner from 1989-2006, on Oct. 30 at an undisclosed location.
Tagliabue is currently an attorney and serves as chairman of the Georgetown University Board of Directors.
Goodell made his decision after speaking with Smith.
In making his choice, he wrote to Smith, saying, 'Commissioner Tagliabue's deep experience in professional football and his reputation for integrity and sound judgment, as well as his understanding of the CBA, the parties' past practices, issues surrounding player safety rules and the integrity of the game, make him singularly qualified to hear and decide the appeals in an efficient and fair manner for all concerned.'
Those who did speak in the Saints locker room Friday were surprised by Goodell's decision and had only heard about it from reporters' questions. All the same, they were also happy with the move.
'I think it's important for the process,' right tackle Zach Strief said. 'Obviously I think anybody that's human is going to be partial to their beliefs, their thoughts. It's hard to be impartial when it was your decision. I think there's a lot of respect in this league from the owners and I'm sure commissioner Goodell and the players for Paul Tagliabue.'
Added linebacker Scott Shanle, who has been outspoken throughout the process, '. It's surprising in a good way. I think when you look at it from the outside looking it, I think the more people you can bring in who are unbiased and are gaining the facts of evidence that they have is good.'
Goodell and the NFL have asserted since late February that the Saints ran a three-year bounty program under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. All appeals were turned down by Goodell, who doled out Williams an indefinite ban from the NFL, Saints coach Sean Payton a year-long suspension, general manager Mickey Loomis an eight game suspension and assistant head coach Joe Vitt a six-game suspension.
Additionally, the Saints had second round picks in 2012 and 2013 taken away and the franchise was fined $500,000.