Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated all penalties levied on four players the league said were involved in a bounty program the New Orleans Saints ran for three years.
Tagliabue, appointed by commissioner Roger Goodell as an independent arbiter, released his ruling Tuesday (see Tagliabue's full statement), more than nine months after the league originally issued its findings from a multi-year investigation.
Current Saints Jonathan Vilma (season-long suspension) and Will Smith (four games), along with former New Orleans player Anthony Hargrove (eight games) will no longer face suspensions or fines. Tagliabue, however, did find that the players did 'engage' in conduct detrimental to the league
Additionally, former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita (three games) was completely exonerated of conduct detrimental to the league, Tagliabue finding only that he was involved in a 'non-injury' pay-for-performance pool.
The onus, Tagliabue said, is on the coaches who ran the program and covered it up to the league throughout its investigation.
'The present appeals are a small piece of a much larger picture,' Tagliabue said. 'Senior Saints' coaches conceived, encouraged and directed the Program. While it included performance rewards for recovering fumbles, interceptions and the like, it also came to include higher cash incentives to 'cart-off' or 'knockout' an opposing player.'
Making matters difficult for Goodell, Tagliabue said, were that 'Saints' coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation into the program and the alleged bounty.'
Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entirety of the 2012 season, general manager Mickey Loomis was given an eight-game suspension and linebackers coach Joe Vitt was doled out a six-game suspension. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely.
'We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters,' the NFL said via a statement released by league spokesman Greg Aiello. '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.'
The NFL Players Association, meanwhile, was happy with the final decision.
'We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result,' the NFLPA said in a statement. 'We are pleased that Paul Tagliabue, as the appointed hearings officer, agreed with the NFL Players Association that previously issued discipline was inappropriate in the matter of the alleged New Orleans Saints bounty program. Vacating all discipline affirms the players' unwavering position that all allegations the League made about their alleged 'intent-to-injure' were utterly and completely false.'
In coming to a decision to vacate the players' penalties, Tagliabue said there was little to no precedent previously to levy such steep suspensions and fines.
'In other words, rightly or wrongly, a sharp change in sanctions or discipline can often be seen as arbitrary and as an impediment rather than an instrument of change,' Tagliabue's report said.
In the case of Hargrove, who was originally suspended for eight games, Tagliabue said it was clear the defensive lineman helped obstruct the investigation. However, in previous cases involved similar types of obstruction, the league only fined the player (Brett Favre) $50,000 and did not suspend him.
More to the point, Tagliabue said the control the coaches had over Hagrove's future could have played a role in his actions.
'Given the comprehensive, overt and ongoing nature of the obstruction by coaches and their direct instructions to Hargrove to lie, combined with their control over his football career, it is clear that Hargrove was under tremendous pressure to follow the chain of command in order to keep his job,' the report said.
As for Fujita, Tagliabue said similar past instances have led only to club fines without disciplining individual players.
In Smith's case, the NFL originally pointed at Smith for being a leader. But with nearly 24 players having been involved, Tagliabue said singling the defensive end out seemed 'inappropriate when most or all of the Saints' defensive unit committed the same or similar acts as those underpinning the discipline of Smith.'
Vilma's, though, might be the most interesting case. The linebacker still has a defamation suit out against Goodell and has said he will not pull it.
In the past, Vitt has said the NFL punished those involved for what they said and not what they did and Tagliabue appears to agree.
While the former commissioner said there 'is not dispute with regard to Vilma's participation in and contributions to the program,' there also was question about the meaning of his offering of money to take out Favre, the Vikings quarterback in the NFC championship game.
Tagliabue said, 'There is little evidence of the tone of any talk about a bounty before the Vikings game. Was any bounty pledged serious? Was it inspirational only? Was it typical 'trash talk' that occurs regularly before and during games? The parties presented no clear answers. No witness could confirm whether Vilma had any money in his hands as he spoke; no evidence was presented that $10,000 was available to him for purposes of paying a bounty or otherwise.'