All player suspensions in the New Orleans Saints bounty case were thrown out by former National Football League Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who placed the blame for the program on the team’s coaches and front office.
Hearing the players’ case on appeal, Tagliabue agreed with current Commissioner Roger Goodell’s findings that Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith engaged in detrimental conduct. He said a fourth player, Scott Fujita, didn’t take part in the bounty plan.
“My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell’s findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,” Tagliabue said in a statement released yesterday by NFL spokesman Greg Aiello on his Twitter page. “However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization.”
The league said in a statement, also released on Aiello’s Twitter page, that it respected Tagliabue’s ruling.
“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,” the NFL said in the statement. “Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football.”
The NFL Players Association called the decision a “fair outcome.”
“Vacating all discipline affirms the players’’unwavering position that all allegations the league made about their alleged intent-to-injure were utterly and completely false,” the union said in an e-mailed statement.
Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University in New Orleans, called the ruling a “tremendous victory” for the players, and said that it also affirmed Goodell’s position to rule on similar future cases. He said the ruling put the onus on the Saints’ organization.
“The report argues that this bounty scheme was put in place by the coaches and the investigation of the bounty scheme was obstructed by the coaches,” Feldman said in a telephone interview. “The players were, in essence, following the orders of their coaches.”
Tagliabue’s ruling applied only to players, and the full-season ban of Saints coach Sean Payton and indefinite suspension of former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams remain in effect.
Vilma will go ahead with a defamation suit filed against Goodell, his lawyer said.
The Saints, who won the Super Bowl after the 2009 season, are 5-8 this season after losing their first four games.
“Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said on Twitter. “Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back.”
The Tagliabue ruling came two days after Hargrove’s agent said the players rejected a settlement proposal from the league.
The NFL said in March that about two dozen Saints players, led by Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 from 2009 to 2011 for trying to injure players such as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.
Current and former Saints players and coaches have said that a performance pool existed to reward defensive plays such as hard tackles. They have denied that money was used as an incentive to intentionally injure opponents.
Goodell chose Tagliabue, 72, in October to hear the appeals after his original penalties were thrown out by an arbitrator who ruled the commissioner had overstepped his bounds.
The players then appealed the new penalties, and Goodell retained Vilma’s full-season suspension, reduced Hargrove’s by one game to seven, cut Smith’s in half to four games and reduced Fujita’s by three games to one.
Tagliabue dismissed all four bans. Fujita acknowledged taking part in a performance pool that didn’t pay for injuries, and Tagliabue said such participation is “typically subject only to club discipline.”
In October, Vilma’s lawyers filed papers with U.S. District Court Judge Helen C. Berrigan in New Orleans saying that Tagliabue has a conflict of interest in the case because he is associated with Covington & Burling LLP, the Washington-based law firm that is defending Goodell in the defamation suit. Tagliabue was NFL commissioner from 1989-2006.
None of the players missed any time, or salary, because of the suspensions, as they were allowed to keep playing while appealing the discipline. Fujita, 33, now on injured reserve with the Cleveland Browns, was due to be paid $3.65 million this season, while Vilma, 30, is owed $1.6 million, according to the union website. Smith, 31, is earning $825,000; Hargrove, 29, is a free agent. The Saints host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (6-7) on Dec. 16.
The league tried last week to settle the case prior to Tagliabue’s ruling, but its offer of reduced or eliminated suspensions was rejected by the players, Hargrove’s agent, Phil Williams, told CBS on Dec. 9 during its NFL pregame show. Under that proposal, players would have been fined and forced to admit guilt, AP said, citing an unidentified person familiar with the matter.
In addition to the four players, Williams and Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis was banned for a half-season. Assistant coach Joe Vitt served a six-game ban and is now interim head coach in Payton’s absence.
The Saints lost their first four games of the season, and have now lost their last three. The team probably won’t make the playoffs for the first time since 2008.
The defamation case is Vilma v. Goodell, 12-cv-1283, U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).