Tagliabue vacates bounty suspensions

Mike Garafolo, USA TODAY Sports

The implicated players in the New Orleans Saints bounty case got the appeals process they wanted.

And now, they have the verdict they wanted, too.

On Tuesday, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated all player discipline - suspensions and fines - levied by current commissioner Roger Goodell, according to league spokesman Greg Aiello, even though Tagliabue affirmed the factual findings Goodell made in the case.

This means the suspensions Goodell imposed on Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita have been wiped off the board for now.

The NFL could continue the battle in court, though it remains unclear at this point if it will do so. More than likely, the league will want the long-running headache to go away.

"Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects ... 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," Aiello quoted Tagliabue via Twitter.

Tagliabue's savvy decision appears to serve several purposes: It likely persuades Vilma to drop his defamation lawsuit against Goodell; it allows Goodell to save face by affirming his findings; and it could wipe clean a scandal at a time when the NFL is in the midst of a public relations nightmare following a murder-suicide by Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and the death of a teammate in a car crash involving Cowboys' Josh Brent, who has been charged with intoxication manslaughter.

"Having reviewed the testimony very carefully, including documentary evidence that is at the center of the conflict, and having assessed the credibility of the four central witnesses on these matters, I find there is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty (on Brett Favre)," Tagliabue wrote.

Current and former Saints players and coaches have acknowledged the existence of a performance pool that rewarded key defensive plays including hard, legal tackles, but have denied organizing or participating in a program designed to intentionally injure opponents.

The original probe, overseen by Commissioner Roger Goodell, covered three seasons and gathered roughly 50,000 pages of documents. That investigation concluded that Vilma and Smith were ring-leaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts."

The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program.

None of the players have served a game of their suspensions yet and are allowed to play while appeals are pending. Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were vacated by an appeal panel created by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them with some modifications.

Vilma received full-season suspension, while Smith was docked four games. Hargrove initially received an eight-game suspension that was later trimmed to seven games, but for practical purposes, was reduced to two games because he was given credit for five games he missed as a free agent after being cut by Green Bay before the regular-season opener.

Fujita had his initial suspension reduced from three games to one, with the league saying that he failed in his duty as a defensive leader to discourage the bounty program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

Goodell also suspended Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season. Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was given an eight-game ban and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt served six games.

Tagliabue's ruling came after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFL Players Association, which represents the other three punished players, to cross examine key NFL witnesses in the probe.

Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being "a dirty organization," jump-started the probe.

Other witnesses included Vilma, Vitt, NFL investigators and former Minnesota head coach Brad Childress. Childress had told the NFL in 2010 that one of his players, Jimmy Kennedy, heard from Hargrove that there was a bounty on then-Vikings quarterback Brett Favre in the NFC title game.

Also for the first time, the NFL allowed players' attorneys to review all of the documents the NFL had collected, including some in which people stated that the players never did what they were accused of, the person who spoke with AP said.

The NFL tried late last week to settle the matter, but the players rejected the league's proposal. Although the NFL's offer would have reduced or eliminated some suspensions, players still would have been fined and forced to admit guilt, said the person who spoke to AP.

Hargrove's agent, Phil Williams, confirmed the settlement offer in an interview with CBS on Sunday, but did not go into detail. In a phone interview with the AP on Monday, the agent said Hargrove already "had been punished as bad as the NFL can possibly punish a player."

"Not only did he lose a year, but the NFL dragged his name through the mud and lied about him," he said.

Several teams inquired about Hargrove after Green Bay cut him, Phil Williams said, but they all expressed reservations about signing the veteran defensive lineman before the bounty matter had been resolved.

"I got calls from the beginning of the season until the middle of the season," the agent said, "and then they stopped."


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