Paul Tagliabue affirmed Roger Goodell's findings in the Saints bounty case but, in a stunning turn of events, vacated all player discipline handed out to Jonathan Vilma (one year), Anthony Hargrove, Scott Fujita and Will Smith.
Tagliabue's bounty ruling (which you can read in full .PDF form here) was announced by the NFL and the former commissioner, filling in for Goodell after the current commish recused himself from the appeal hearings. Tagliabue decided that while Goodell's findings were factually accurate, the "entire case" was "contaminated" by the Saints organization.
"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. "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."
Goodell recused himself from the Saints appeal hearings in October, and the NFLPA originally wanted Tagliabue to recuse himself as well. Tagliabue declined to do so and it's looking like that worked out pretty well for the players involved.
Does this mean that the bounty scandal is over? It could be, but it's no guarantee, as Tagliabue's ruling made it clear that he found Vilma still "guilty" of offering a bounty. Per Albert Breer of the NFL Network, Fujita is the only player involved that's "completely cleared."
"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)," Tagliabue wrote.
So the next possible step for the players could be to continue and fight for their respective reputations. Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said that Vilma will continue to fight for his reputation through the defamation lawsuit he filed against Goodell before the season began.
League officials issued a statement saying they "respect" Tagliabue's decision.
"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the league said in a statement. "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 originally was suspended the entire season by the NFL, Smith originally received a four-game suspension, Hargrove was suspended eight games only to have it reduced to seven games, and Fujita received a three-game suspension that was reduced to a single game.
Having all of those suspensions wiped out entirely is a huge win for the players. But, as Drew Brees pointed out on Twitter, it might be too little too late for the Saints.
One key point about Tagliabue's ruling, by the way, is that it doesn't sink Goodell in a courtroom. Because Tagliabue stated that there was clearly misconduct by the players, it would be difficult to prove that Goodell was purposely malicious in issuing his original punishments to the players.
We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result," the NFLPA said in a statement. "We are pleased that Paul Tagliabue, as the appointed hearings officer, agreed with the NFL Players Association that previously issued discipline was inappropriate in the matter of the alleged New Orleans Saints bounty program. 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."