NEW ORLEANS -- In a sharp rebuke to his successor's handling of the NFL's bounty investigation, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players in a case that has preoccupied the league for almost a year.
Tagliabue, appointed by commissioner Roger Goodell to handle the appeals, still found that three of the players engaged in conduct detrimental to the league. He said they participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays -- including bone-jarring hits -- that could merit fines. But he stressed the team's coaches were very much involved.
The entire case, he said, "has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
The team's "coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation," the ruling said.
Tagliabue oversaw a second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009 to 2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma had been given a full-season suspension, while defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove each received shorter suspensions.
Tagliabue cleared Fujita of conduct detrimental to the league.
"I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings as to the four players. I conclude that Hargrove, Smith and Vilma -- but not Fujita -- engaged in 'conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football,' " the ruling said.
"However, for the reasons set forth in this decision, I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players. Although I vacate all suspensions, I fully considered but ultimately rejected reducing the suspensions to fines of varying degrees for Hargrove, Smith and Vilma. 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," it said.
Vilma said in a text to ESPN that he still intends to pursue his defamation case against Goodell.
"I'm pleased that Paul vacated the suspensions. If (U.S. District) Judge (Ginger) Berrigan allows, I now look forward to pursuing my defamation suit against Roger Goodell."
When asked about this, Vilma said in a text that Tagliabue "ignores the totality of the situation. Goodell publicly stated I helped create the program and I waved $10K for Kurt Warner. It's not about just Favre."
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, applauded Tagliabue's decision and called on Goodell to release the transcripts of the hearings.
"We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension. 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," Ginsberg said.
"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," the statement continued. "We call upon Commissioner Tagliabue to release the transcripts of the proceedings held before him so that they are available as we go forward."
The NFL said Tuesday afternoon in a statement: "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."
The NFL Players Association, meanwhile, praised Tagliabue's decision.
"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 union said in its statement.
"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. We are happy for our members."
Smith also issued a statement voicing his pleasure with the ruling.
"I'm pleased with the ruling of Mr. Tagliabue to vacate my suspension," Smith said. "I continue to maintain that I did not participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program. I appreciate that Mr. Taglaibue did not rush to judgment, taking into consideration all facts presented to him, before ruling -- something that was clearly not done by Commissioner Goodell in previous hearings. I am looking forward to putting this all behind me and getting back to the game I love."
Numerous NFL players expressed on Twitter their delight with Tagliabue's ruling.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted his congratulations to his vindicated current and former teammates.
"Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back," he wrote.
The Steelers' Ryan Clark, who has been an outspoken critic of Goodell, celebrated Tagliabue's ruling.
"Good old Paul Tagliabue!! Lol!! I love it. All I can say is I love it. Carry on," he tweeted.
"This really sucks for Anthony Hargrove who lost a year of salary, pension, severance pay, credited season as well as 401K contribution," he wrote.
None of the players on teams sat out any games because of suspensions. They have been allowed to play while appeals are pending, though Fujita is on injured reserve.
Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell reissued them, with some changes, and those have been dismissed.
Meanwhile, the players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court, but Berrigan had been waiting to see how the latest round of appeals played out before deciding whether to get involved.
With the player suspensions overturned, the end of a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and resulted in about 50,000 pages of documents could be near.
NFL investigators found that Vilma and Smith were ringleaders 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.
Goodell also suspended Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints coach Sean Payton for a full season.
Saints general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for the first eight games of the season and assistant coach Joe Vitt, who is serving as interim coach during Payton's ban, was suspended for the first six games.
Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFLPA, which represents the other three 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.
Information from ESPN NFL Insider Ed Werder and The Associated Press was used in this report.