After nine months, four current and former New Orleans Saints players who were named following the NFL’s three-year investigation into a pay-for-performance scheme had their suspensions overturned Tuesday.
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed as appeals hearing officer in October by current Commissioner Roger Goodell, vacated the suspensions handed out to middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, as well as two former Saints — linebacker Scott Fujita and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Tagliabue heard the case in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans last week.
Goodell announced March 2 that an investigation by the league showed former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and 24 to 27 players were involved in a bounty scheme that awarded cash for hits, called “cart-offs” and “knockouts,” that took opposing players out of games.
Goodell suspended Vilma for the 2012 season and banned Smith for four games. Hargrove and Fujita received bans of eight and three games, respectively. Hargrove is a free agent and Fujita is with the Cleveland Browns.
The suspensions of Hargrove and Fujita were reduced by one game each after Goodell heard a second round of appeals in October, one month after a three-person Collective Bargaining Agreement appeals panel overturned his initial suspensions.
Despite vacating the suspensions, Tagliabue agreed with the league’s findings that Vilma, Smith and Hargrove were involved in a pool that rewarded players for big plays and hard hits.
Fujita, however, was exonerated by Tagliabue of conduct detrimental to the league, saying he found the NFL’s contentions against Fujita to be “lacking in merit.”
Tagliabue noted the case was contaminated by Saints coaches and other members of the organization because they encouraged the players to participate in the system, did nothing to stop it, or asked them to mislead investigators.
“Unlike Saints’ broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects,” Tagliabue wrote in his decision. “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.
“I strongly condemn the misconduct of the Saints’ coaches found by Commissioner Goodell and confirmed in the record developed during this appeal. That severe misconduct played a substantial role in my deciding whether to sustain, in whole or in part, or vacate the discipline to be imposed upon these four players. Equally, in vacating the players’ suspensions, I do not in any degree condone their behavior.”
The Saints did not immediately respond to an email request for comment.
Also suspended by Goodell were Saints coach Sean Payton for the 2012 season, General Manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt for six games.
They were suspended for misleading investigators and for not stopping the bounty system when instructed to do so by league officials.
Williams, who left the Saints to join the St. Louis Rams in January, was suspended indefinitely and cannot apply for reinstatement until after the season.
Vitt, who served as the team’s interim coach before and after his six-game suspension, has repeatedly said Saints defenders never did anything to intentionally injure players when they stepped between the white lines.
“We respect Mr. Tagliabue’s decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters,” the NFL said in a statement. “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 said in a statement: “We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result. 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.”
The players’ suspensions were originally overturned Sept. 7 by a three-person Collective Bargaining Agreement appeals panel, which unanimously voted to send the case back to Goodell for a redetermination because they said it was unclear if the suspensions fell under his jurisdiction, according to the CBA.
Goodell later appointed Tagliabue, an attorney who was the NFL’s commissioner from 1989-2006, to hear the case and bring it to a conclusion.
Tagliabue’s ruling does nothing to change the suspensions to Payton, Loomis, Vitt and Williams.
A statement issued by Vilma’s attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said his client intends to continue pursuing a defamation-of-character suit that was filed against Goodell and the league after he was identified as one of the leaders of the pay-for-performance system.
“We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension,” Ginsberg’s statement said. “On the other hand, Commissioner Tagliabue’s rationalization of Commissioner Goodell’s actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan.
“Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day.”
None of the players who were implicated sat out any games because of the suspensions.
Smith has played in all 13 games this season. Vilma, who underwent a series of knee operations during the offseason, has played in eight games after spending the first six weeks of the season on the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list.
Fujita played in four games with the Browns before his season ended when he went on injured reserve with a neck injury.
Hargrove, who was with the Green Bay Packers this summer, was released and hasn’t played this season.