The four players suspended in the New Orleans Saints’ alleged bounty scheme finally got their wish Friday.
Linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Scott Fujita, defensive end Will Smith and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove will have their appeals heard later this month by retired NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue instead of Roger Goodell, who succeeded Tagliabue in 2006.
In an attempt to bring the bounty matter to a “prompt and fair” conclusion, Goodell recused himself Friday and appointed Tagliabue to hear the appeals and decide the penalties for the four players nearly six months after Goodell originally suspended them.
They were suspended May 2 with Vilma being sidelined for the entire 2012 season. Smith was banished for four games, while Hargrove and Fujita, who are no longer with the Saints, got eight- and three-game bans, respectively.
Tagliabue, an attorney who served as NFL commissioner from 1989-2006, will hear their appeals on Oct. 30 at a time and location to be determined, according to a statement issued by the league office.
Under terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Goodell has the exclusive authority to hear appeals of discipline for conduct detrimental or appoint a designee to hear and make decisions on appeals.
Goodell was scheduled to hear the players’ latest appeal in New York on Tuesday.
They four were suspended for their role in a pay-for-performance system Goodell said former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is serving at least a one-year suspension, administered from 2009-11.
Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the season, while General Manager Mickey Loomis (eight games) and assistant head coach Joe Vitt (six games) were also punished for misleading investigators looking into the matter.
The statement from the league said Goodell consulted with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith before deciding to step aside and appoint Tagliabue as the hearing officer for the case.
“I have held two hearings to date,” Goodell said in the statement, “and have modified the discipline in several respects based on my recent meetings with the players.
“To bring this matter to a prompt and fair conclusion, I have appointed former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to serve as the hearing officer for the upcoming appeals.”
Since the penalties came down in May, the players and NFLPA have been wrangling with Goodell. They claimed he didn’t have authority to suspend them under terms of the new CBA that went into effect in Aug. 2011.
A three-person CBA appeals panel unanimously agreed and overturned the penalties just days before the regular-season opener in early September, allowing the players to rejoin their teams.
In a four-page summary description, the panel voted to send the case back to Goodell for a redetermination because they said it was unclear if the suspensions fell under his jurisdiction.
Vilma, who is recovering from multiple knee surgeries since last November, was placed on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list and just returned to practice Wednesday.
Smith was allowed to return to the Saints and has played in the first five games, while Fujita, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, has played despite being plagued by injuries.
Hargrove was released by the Green Bay Packers this summer.
On Oct. 9, Goodell reaffirmed his decision to suspend the players, but reduced the penalties given to Fujita and Hargrove.
While the punishment for Vilma, who is suing Goodell for defamation of character, and Smith didn’t change, Fujita’s ban was reduced to one game and Hargrove’s was trimmed to seven games.
But the players still wanted Goodell to recuse himself because they and the NFLPA said he couldn’t be fair and impartial in his rulings on the matter.
In turning the case over, Goodell said he will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Tagliabue’s decisions.
“Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters,” Goodell said. “He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity.
“To be clear, I have not consulted with (Tagliabue) at any point about the Saints matter nor has he been any part of the process.”