Tagliabue makes Saints bounty appeal ruling

New Orleans Saints LogoFormer NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue released a 22-page decision (PDF) in the appeal of the four players involved in the New Orleans Saints bounty case on Tuesday afternoon in which he upheld NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s original findings of “conduct detrimental” in the case of three players — Scott Fujita was cleared —, but vacated the suspensions given to all four — Fujita (one game), Anthony Hargrove (seven games), Will Smith (four games) and Jonathan Vilma (full season).

In making the decision, Tagliabue condemmed the Saints organization for its’ actions in the affair, but also found fault with how the league came to the decision to suspend the specific players involved instead of fining them. The league had previously fined the Saints $500,000, took away future draft picks and suspended former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams indefinitely, head coach Sean Payton for a full year, general manager Mickey Loomis eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six games.

The key portion of Tagliabue’s decision:

“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.” 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, as explained in my discussion below, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization. Moreover, the League has not previously suspended or fined players for some of the activities in which these players participated and has in the recent past imposed only minimal fines on NFL Clubs — not players — of a mere $25,000 or less.

“Given the three years of investigation, discipline and intense acrimony surrounding the Saints’ Program and the alleged bounty, it is in the best interest of all parties for me to resolve this matter as completely as possible, so that everyone involved with the NFL has this matter put to rest, enabling the League and the NFL Players’ Association (“NFLPA”) to move on to address the many serious issues of player safety that they confront. To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines; rather, I have decided not to issue fines this time for the reasons stated in this decision and the sake of the best interests of all involved in professional football.

“I strongly condemn the misconduct of the Saints’ coaches found by Commissioner Goodell and confirmed in the record developed during this appeal. That severe misconduct played a substantial role in my deciding whether to sustain, in whole or in part, or vacate the discipline to be imposed upon these four players. Equally, in vacating the players’ suspensions I do not in any degree condone their behavior. I do not approve any of the misconduct in which Commissioner Goodell found the players to have engaged, though I do not find Fujita’s conduct equivalent to the other players. But each player made choices that do not reflect favorably on him. Moreover, there is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints’ players for the events that occurred here. This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light.”

The NFL released a statement on the decision:

“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 NFLPA also released a statement on 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.

“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.”

The bounty case now moves to federal court where Vilma has a defamation lawsuit pending against Goodell. All indications from Vilma’s lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, is that Vilma will continue to pursue the suit.

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