An appeal hearing overseen by former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated the discipline for the four players suspended by the NFL for their role in the New Orleans Saints bounty case. The decision, an official ruling on behalf of the NFL, reverses the punishment for Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma.
Tagliabue supported the league's findings in the case, but noted the role played by the coaches and the Saints organization in a tersely worded statement.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello shared Tagliabue's decision via Twitter:
Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects ... 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.
Having reviewed the testimony very carefully, including documentary evidence that is at the center of the conflict, and having assessed the credibility of the four central witnesses on these matters, I find there is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty (on Brett Favre).
Details of the appeal hearing are unknown at this time. Several coaches involved were testified in the appeal, including former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Williams received an indefinite suspension from the league for his role in the scandal. Head coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season. Neither coach has the ability to appeal their punishments because coaching matters not overseen by a collective bargaining agreement like the one that governs league-player relations.
Tagliabue was appointed to hear the appeal after players and the NFLPA petitioned for commissioner Roger Goodell to recuse himself.
The league issued a statement following 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.