The suspenions of the four players -- Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove -- involved in the New Orleans Saints bounty program have been vacated, a league spokesperson announced Tuesday.
Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to handle a second round of player appeals to the league, did find that the players' conduct was detrimental to the league. He says they participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays -- including hard tackles -- that could justify fines.
"Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects," Tagliabue said in a statement released by the league. "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."
The NFL reacted to the ruling:
"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the NFL said in a statement released on Twitter. "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."
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said his client plans to pursue a defamation lawsuit.
"Jonathan intends to continue to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation," Ginsberg told NFL.com's Albert Breer. "We're pleased that the unjust penalties have been overturned, but this is only one piece in remedying the situation for Jonathan."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted his support of the players shortly after the suspensions were vacated: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
An NFL probe that covered three seasons concluded that Vilma and Smith were ring-leaders 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.
The players have been allowed to play while appeals are pending, though Fujita is on injured reserve and Hargrove is not with a team. Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were vacated by an appeal panel created by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them with some modifications. Meanwhile, the players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court.
Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFL Players Association, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses in the probe. Those witnesses included former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season.