Four players suspended for their roles in the New Orleans Saints’ cash-for-hits program had their bans overturned on Tuesday, ending a scandal that has hung over the NFL for most of the year.
Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove were suspended in May after an NFL investigation found them to have had leadership roles in a program that gave players cash rewards for knocking opponents out of games from 2009 to last year.
However, while backing the league’s main findings on the bounty scheme, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, appointed to handle the appeals, ruled that the players should not be banned.
“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,’” Tagliabue wrote in his decision. “However, for the reasons set forth in this decision, I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players.”
Tagliabue’s reasoning was based on precedent, arguing that the league had not previously fined or suspended players for such activities, and he chose to pin the blame more on the Saints coaches and executives, who he said had “contaminated” the case.
Tagliabue cleared former Saints linebacker Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, saying his involvement was in a different non-injury focused bonus pool for performance and not in the pool which rewarded “cart-offs” and “knockouts.”
The ruling is the latest twist in a scandal that rocked one of the NFL’s premier franchises, including a season-long ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton and an indefinite suspension for former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The NFL’s investigation had concluded that Saints linebacker Vilma, who was originally hit with a season-long ban, and Saints defensive end Smith, who received a four-game suspension, were key figures in the bounty scheme.
The initial suspensions were vacated in September by a three-member appeals panel, which asked NFL commissioner Roger Goodell to clarify his reasons for the bans. Goodell then issued new punishments, which were the subject of the latest appeal.
Vilma, who like the other players was allowed to play while waiting for the appeal result, had already filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell and intends to continue with it, his lawyer told the NFL Web site.
“Jonathan intends to continue to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation,” attorney Peter Ginsberg said. “We’re pleased that the unjust penalties have been overturned, but this is only one piece in remedying the situation for Jonathan.”