NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appointed his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, to hear the appeals of four players suspended in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal.
Goodell said Friday that he notified Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, as well as the NFL Players Association, that Tagliabue would be the hearing officer to "decide the appeals and bring the matter to a prompt and fair conclusion."
The union and the four players had asked Goodell to recuse himself, contending he couldn't fairly rule. Their second set of appeals will be heard Oct. 30 by Tagliabue.
"Any time we move towards a fair evaluation of the evidence it is a positive development," said Peter Ginsberg, Vilma's attorney. "Commissioner Goodell's belated recognition that he cannot possibly serve as an impartial and unbiased arbitrator is certainly a positive development. And we have enormous respect for Paul Tagliabue.
"Having said that, we now need to learn whether Commissioner Tagliabue plans to provide to us the fundamental rights that Commissioner Goodell ignored, including the right to examine the accusers and to see the evidence, and also we need to consider that Commissioner Tagliabue is counsel to the law firm representing Commissioner Goodell in Jonathan's defamation lawsuit, as well as representing the NFL in Jonathan's challenge to the entire process in this matter."
Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season and Smith was banned four games for their roles in the bounty program. Fujita, now with the Browns, was barred three games, since reduced to one. Hargrove, a free agent, had his suspension reduced from eight games to seven.
"I have held two hearings to date," Goodell said in a statement released by the NFL, "and have modified the discipline in several respects based on my recent meetings with the players. I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue's decisions."
"Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters," Goodell added. "He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity."
Tagliabue served as NFL commissioner from 1989 to 2006 and is an attorney. For part of that time, Goodell was the league's general counsel.
Goodell said he consulted with NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith before asking Tagliabue to hear these appeals. The collective bargaining agreement that was reached to end the lockout in August 2011 gave Goodell exclusive authority to hear appeals of discipline for conduct detrimental or to appoint someone to hear and decide an appeal.
"To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints matter, nor has he been any part of the process," Goodell said. "Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings."
Vilma wasn't available for comment Friday, and Smith declined to comment, according to WWL-TV. Vilma's lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, did share his feelings with NFL.com and NFL Network's Albert Breer.
"There no longer could've been any doubt, in any rational person's mind, that Commissioner (Roger) Goodell was biased and couldn't sit as an appeal officer," Ginsberg told Breer. "Any time we get closer to a fair evaluation of the evidence, better it is for Jonathan and all the players, and the closer we are to putting an end to these false accusations."
Ginsberg also added: "I've always had enormous respect for Paul Tagliabue. But I'm concerned that he remains counsel to the law firm (Washington-based Covington & Burling) that is representing Commissioner Goodell in the players' defamation suits."
Ginsberg declined comment on if the switch to Tagliabue could lead to a full resolution to the matter, which would need to include a settlement of the lawsuits.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.