Tagliabue overturns Saints suspensions

Former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players who had been punished by the league in connection with alleged bounty scandal involving the team.

Tagliabue, appointed by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to hear the players’ appeals in the case, affirmed the factual findings of Goodell and concluded that Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove engaged in conduct detrimental to the sport, a league spokesman announced Tuesday on Twitter.

According to Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications, Tagliabue ruled that the findings justified the issuance of fines.

But Tagliabue vacated all player discipline in the case and ruled that the “entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization,” Aiello wrote.

The league had suspended current Saints players Vilma and Smith and former Saints players Hargrove and Scott Fujita after concluding that they’d particiapted in a program by which players were paid for hits that injured opponents. The players denied the allegations.

The league issued a written statement that said: “We respect Mr. Tagliabue’s decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters. 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 players will not be fined despite Tagliabue’s finding that fines were justified, a league official said, calling Tagliabue’s ruling the end of the process under the sport’s collective bargaining agreement.

Fujita was not ruled by Tagliabue to have engaged in conduct detrimental to the sport, the league official said.

A person on the players’ side of the case called Tagliabue’s ruling an attempt “to make all happy” by calling the three players guilty of detrimental conduct but vacating all disciplinary measures.

“I conclude that Hargrove, Smith, and Vilma engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football; and I vacate all player discipline,” Tagliabue wrote in his ruling.

Tagliabue conducted hearings and heard from witnesses, including former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, after being appointed by Goodell to hear the players’ appeals.

The players separately had challenged the suspensions in court.

Goodell had re-issued the suspensions in October, reducing two of the penalties, after being ordered to reconsider the penalties by an appeals panel set up by the sport’s labor agreement. The NFL Players Association had challenged Goodell’s authority in the case.

Fujita’s suspension was reduced from three games to one in October, and Hargrove’s suspension was reduced from eight games to seven. Hargrove, now a free agent, was credited with the five games he had missed to that point in the season as a free agent but Goodell found that Hargrove still would have to serve a two-game suspension when he signed with a team.

Smith’s four-game suspension and Vilma’s season-long suspension were unchanged by Goodell in October. Goodell did rule then that Vilma would retain the portion of his salary that he’d received for the season’s first five games while on the physically unable to perform list.

The appeals panel overturned the suspensions in September, sending them back to Goodell for reconsideration.

Goodell previously suspended Williams indefinitely. He suspended Saints coach Sean Payton for this entire season, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant coach Joe Vitt for six games. Only the players’ suspensions were under appeal in the case before Tagliabue.

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