Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue on Tuesday rescinded punishments against four players in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal.
The ruling overturned a decision made in October by Roger Goodell, the current commissioner, against Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita.
Under the bounty program, Tagliabue wrote, Saints players were given incentives during the 2009 through 2011 seasons to render opposing players unable to play. They were called "cartoffs" and "knockouts."
In addition, it was alleged that the Saints offered a bounty for injuring Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre during the NFC Championship game in January 2010.
In October, after he upheld suspensions, Goodell appointed Tagliabue to review player appeals.
In his 18-page order, Tagliabue found that Fujita's actions "were not conduct detrimental" and vacated a one-game suspension imposed by Goodell.
Tagliabue wrote that Fujita "did not participate in the program including cartoffs and knockouts and that his participation in a 'non-injury' pay-for-performance pool is typically subject only to club discipline."
Tagliabue found that Hargrove, Smith and Vilma engaged in "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football," but ordered their punishments also be rescinded.
Hargrove had been suspended for seven games but was credited with having served five. Goodell found that Hargrove falsely answered an NFL investigator's questions about the misconduct.
But Tagliabue said it was not clear Hargrove lied about the program and noted that he was "under tremendous pressure to follow the chain of command in order to keep his job." Tagliabue concluded that there was insufficient evidence that Hargrove's alleged misconduct merited a suspension.
Goodell had suspended Smith for four games after finding he gave money to the program. But Tagliabue said Smith was being singled out unfairly because he was a team captain.
"On the present record, selective prosecution of allegations of misconduct and enforcement of discipline relative to Smith cannot be sustained," Tagliabue wrote. "Whatever the reason for such selective enforcement, it does not satisfy basic requirements for consistent treatment of player employees similarly situated."
Goodell had found that Vilma offered a bounty to any Saints player who could knock Favre out of the 2010 championship game and suspended him for the entire 2012 season.
But Tagliabue nixed that suspension, too, saying it was not clear that any such pledges were made seriously.
"Was it inspirational only?" he asked. "Was it typical 'trash talk' that occurs regularly before games? The parties presented no clear answers."
Tagliabue wrote reducing the suspensions to fines could be justified in the cases of Hargrove, Smith and Vilma.
"However ... this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization," he wrote.
After the order was released, Saints quarterback Drew Brees took to Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back," he wrote.
In a statement, the NFL noted that the matter had been reviewed by Goodell, two collective bargaining agreement grievance arbitrators, the Collective Bargaining Appeals Panel and now Tagliabue.
"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," the league said.
"Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."
In a statement, the NFL Players Association, the union, said it was pleased with the decision.
"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."
Vilma's lawyer, Peter R. Ginsberg, accused Goodell of "trying every conceivable maneuver to avoid real and honest scrutiny of his manufactured allegations that Jonathan Vilma engaged in a bounty program aimed at opposing players."
Though gratified that his client "no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension," he said Tagliabue's order "does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan."