NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appointed predecessor Paul Tagliabue to hear the appeals of four players suspended in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
Goodell said Friday he notified Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, as well as the players' union, that Tagliabue would be the hearing officer to "decide the appeals and bring the matter to a prompt and fair conclusion."
The union and the four players had asked Goodell to recuse himself, contending he could not fairly rule. Their second set of appeals will be heard Oct. 30.
"The commissioner's decision today makes it clear to us that he's finally been convinced there is no way he could ever have been a fair and neutral arbitrator," Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, told ESPN's Ed Werder.
"Having said that, we need time to evaluate whether Commissioner Tagliabue -- as much as we respect the work he did for the NFL -- is an appropriate replacement given the fact Mr. Tagliabue works for the same law firm representing Mr. Goodell in both the challenge to the discipline, as well as Mr. Vilma's defamation lawsuit against Mr Goodell. We are also concerned the commissioner failed to follow CBA procedures regarding consulting with the union before making an appointment of this sort.''
Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season and Smith was banned four games for their roles in the bounty program. Fujita, now with the Browns, was barred three games, since reduced to one. Hargrove is a free agent whose suspension was reduced from eight games to seven.
"I have held two hearings to date and have modified the discipline in several respects based on my recent meetings with the players," Goodell said. "I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. 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. He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity."
Tagliabue was NFL commissioner from 1989-2006 and is a lawyer. For part of that time, Goodell was the league's general counsel.
Goodell said he consulted with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith before asking Tagliabue to hear these appeals. The collective bargaining agreement with the union that was reached to end the lockout in August 2011 gave Goodell exclusive authority to hear appeals of discipline for conduct detrimental or to appoint someone to hear and decide an appeal.
Goodell periodically has appointed others to hear appeals for club fines, personal conduct suspensions and for matters concerning drug and steroid policy.
"To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter, nor has he been any part of the process," Goodell said. "Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings."
Goodell handed down the suspensions in May, and they took effect in July after initial appeals were rejected by Goodell. Those suspensions lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeals panel that instructed Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending the players.
The suspensions were reissued by the NFL last week and promptly appealed by all four players. None of the suspensions is currently in effect because each was appealed within the framework of the NFL's labor agreement.
But all four players have asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to throw out Goodell's disciplinary rulings on the grounds he has demonstrated bias against the players in his handling the bounty investigation. The players say Goodell violated due process rights.
In a recent court filing, the union said: "It is only a neutral (arbitrator) of unquestioned integrity who can restore public confidence in this process and mitigate the damage which the NFL's handling of `bounty-gate' has inflicted upon the game."
Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell.
Information from ESPN's Ed Werder and The Associated Press was used in this report.