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NFL’s bounty suspensions overturned

Tagliabue cites coaches’ involvement during appeal

– Finding fault with nearly everyone tied to the New Orleans Saints’ bounty case, from the coaches to Roger Goodell, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue tossed out the suspensions of four players Tuesday and condemned the team for obstructing the investigation.

In a surprising rejection of his successor’s overreaching punishments, Tagliabue wrote that he would “now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon” two current Saints, linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith, and two players no longer with the club, Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove.

Tagliabue essentially absolved Fujita but did agree with Goodell’s finding that the other three players “engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.”

It was a ruling that allowed both sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first made “Saints bounties” a household phrase: The NFL pointed to the determination that Goodell’s facts were right; the NFL Players Association issued a statement noting that Tagliabue said “previously issued discipline was inappropriate.”

Vilma, suspended by Goodell for the entire current season, and Smith, suspended four games, have been playing for the Saints while their appeals were pending. Fujita is on injured reserve; Hargrove is not with a team.

Tagliabue, appointed by Goodell to oversee a second round of player appeals, criticized the Saints as an organization that fostered bad behavior and tried to impede the investigation into what the NFL said was a performance pool designed to knock targeted opponents out of games from 2009 to 2011, with thousands of dollars in payouts.

A “culture” that promoted tough talk and cash incentives for hits to injure opponents existed in New Orleans, according to Tagliabue, who also wrote that “Saints’ coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL’s investigation.”

The former commissioner did not entirely exonerate the players, however.

He said Vilma and Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays – including hard tackles – while Hargrove, following coaches’ orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.

The former commissioner found Goodell’s actions historically disproportionate to past punishment to players for similar behavior, which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions.

The players have challenged the NFL’s handling of the entire process in federal court, but U.S District Judge Ginger Berrigan had been waiting for the latest round of appeals to play out before deciding whether to get involved. The judge issued an order Tuesday giving the NFLPA and Vilma until today to notify the court if they found Tagliabue’s ruling acceptable.

Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell, which also is being handled by Berrigan.

Vilma’s lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams, said by email to The Associated Press that they would “pursue the defamation action vigorously.”

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