Will Smith (left) and Jonathan Vilma made their appeals Nov. 30 in Washington (Cliff Owen / AP)

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

However, Tagliabue, who was appointed to Commissioner Roger Goodell to hear the players’ appeals, upheld factual findings by Goodell and the NFL in their investigation. Ruling on the players’ appeal, Tagliabue said 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.”

Paul Tagliabue (Cliff Owen / AP)

The league had suspended current Saints Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith and former Saints Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. Although players acknowledged the existence of a performance pool that rewarded them for legal tackles, the four had maintained their innocence all along. The four will not be fined.

Fujita was exonerated, with Tagliabue writing:  “I find his actions here were not conduct detrimental and vacate his suspension.”

In a written statement, the league stated: 

“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.”

Saints Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season, General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games. Gregg Williams, the Saints’ defensive coordinator who had left the team for a job with the St. Louis Rams, was given an indefinite suspension. Only the players’ punishment was under review by Tagliabue.

The decision accomplishes several things. It places responsibility on the coaches and team management and takes away the bully pulpit players were using to mount a PR crusade. It allows Goodell to save face, with the Super Bowl headed for New Orleans in February and it’s one less PR mess for the league to deal with after tragedies involving players in Kansas City and Dallas in the last 10 days. In addition, Vilma has filed a defamation suit against Goodell that is still pending.

Full story from Mark Maske: Saints players’ disicpline vacated 

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