NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Finding fault with nearly everyone tied to the New Orleans Saints' bounty case, from the coaches to Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue tossed out the suspensions of four players Tuesday and condemned the team for obstructing the investigation.
In a surprising rejection of his successor's overreaching punishments, Tagliabue wrote that he would ``now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon'' two current Saints, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, and two players no longer with the club, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.
Tagliabue essentially absolved Fujita, but did agree with Goodell's finding that the other three players ``engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.''
It was a ruling that allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first made ``Saints bounties'' a household phrase: The NFL pointed to the determination that Goodell's facts were right; the NFL Players Association issued a statement noting that Tagliabue said ``previously issued discipline was inappropriate.''
Vilma, suspended by Goodell for the entire current season, and Smith, suspended four games, have been playing for the Saints while their appeals were pending. Fujita is on injured reserve; Hargrove is not with a team.
Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to oversee a second round of player appeals, criticized the Saints as an organization that fostered bad behavior and tried to impede the investigation into what the NFL said was a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011, with thousands of dollars in payouts.
A ``culture'' that promoted tough talk and cash incentives for hits to injure opponents - one key example was Vilma's offer of $10,000 to any teammate who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC championship game at the end of the 2009 season - existed in New Orleans, according to Tagliabue, who also wrote that ``Saints' coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation.''
The former commissioner did not entirely exonerate the players, however.
He said Vilma and Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays - including hard tackles - while Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.
``My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines,'' the ruling said. ``However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization.''
Tagliabue said he decided, in this particular case, that it was in the best interest of all parties involved to eliminate player punishment because of the enduring acrimony it has caused between the league and the NFL Players Association. He added that he hoped doing so would allow the NFL and union to move forward collaboratively to the more important matters of enhancing player safety.
``To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines,'' his ruling said.
Tagliabue oversaw the second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Goodell had given Vilma a full-season suspension, while he gave Smith, Fujita and Hargrove shorter suspensions.
Tagliabue cleared Fujita of conduct detrimental to the league.
The former commissioner found Goodell's actions historically disproportionate to past punishment to players for similar behavior, which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions. He also stated that it was very difficult to determine whether the pledges players made were genuine, or simply a motivational ploy, particularly because Saints defenders never demonstrated a pattern of dirty play on the field.
``The relationship of the discipline for the off-field `talk' and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness,'' Tagliabue wrote in his 22-page opinion. ``If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or `bounties' from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere.''
Saints quarterback Drew Brees commented on Twitter: ``Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back.''
The Saints opened the season 0-4 and are now 5-8 and virtually out of the playoffs after appearing the postseason the three previous seasons, including the franchise's only Super Bowl title to conclude the 2009 season.
Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the NFL's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, and now those have been dismissed.
Now, with the player suspensions overturned, the end could be near for a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and gathered about 50,000 pages of documents.
``We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters,'' the league said in a statement.
``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 (NFL's collective bargaining agreement) 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 players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court, but U.S District Judge Ginger Berrigan had been waiting for the latest round of appeals to play out before deciding whether to get involved. The judge issued an order Tuesday giving the NFLPA and Vilma until Wednesday to notify the court if they found Tagliabue's ruling acceptable.
Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell, which also is being handled by Berrigan. Vilma's lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams, said by email to The Associated Press that they would ``pursue the defamation action vigorously.''
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.'' Witnesses including Williams also said Vilma made a $10,000 pledge for anyone who knocked then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC title game. However, Tagliabue found it was not clear if the pledge was genuine or simply a motivational prop.
``There is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty'' on Favre, Tagliabue wrote. ``I cannot, however, uphold a multi-game suspension where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine.''
The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program. The players have from the beginning denied they ever took the field intending to injure opponents, while Hargrove has said he never lied about a bounty program, because there wasn't one.
Goodell suspended Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season.
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. 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.
``We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result,'' the players' union said in a statement. ``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.
``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.''
Smith said he was pleased that Tagliabue vacated his suspension.
``I continue to maintain that I did not participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program,'' he added. ``I appreciate that Mr. Tagliabue 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.''
A statement released by Vilma's lawyers on his behalf said the linebacker is ``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. 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.''