Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed by his successor, Commissioner Roger Goodell, to handle a second round of player appeals to the league, found that three of the players engaged in conduct that was detrimental to the league. He says they participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays -- including hard tackles -- that could justify fines.
"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 released by the league. "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."
Vilma had been given a full-season suspension, while Smith, Fujita and Hargrove each received shorter suspensions.
Fujita was the only player cleared of conduct detrimental to the league by Tagliabue.
Now, with the player suspensions overturned, the end could be near for a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and gathered about 50,000 pages of documents.
"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the NFL said in a statement. "This matter has now been reviewed by Commissioner (Roger) 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."
Meanwhile, 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.
Goodell is scheduled to speak with reporters Wednesday at the conclusion of the owners' meeting in Dallas.
The NFL Players Association released a statement: "We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result. 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."
Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg, said he is "relieved and gratified" with his client's suspension being overturned.
"Two competing forces have been at play since at least March of this year -- Roger Goodell has been 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 and Jonathan has been fighting to have an open and fair review of those accusations," Ginsberg said in a statement.
"We are obviously relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension. On the other hand, Commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of Commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. Jonathan has a right and every intention to pursue proving what really occurred and we look forward to returning to a public forum where the true facts can see the light of day.
"We call upon Commissioner Tagliabue to release the transcripts of the proceedings held before him so that they are available as we go forward. Finally, it is regrettable that the NFL continues unjustifiably to attack the New Orleans Saints, an organization comprised of decent and honest people who continue to stand strong in the face of these baseless attacks."
Ginsberg also told NFL.com's Albert Breer that his client "intends to continue to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation."
Hargrove's agent, Phil Williams, said his client is pleased that Tagliabue saw there wasn't enough evidence of his wrongdoing and lifted Hargrove's suspension, but both are bitter at the process and how Hargrove's name and life were negatively impacted.
"Anthony Hargrove has already lost a full year in the National Football League, in his prime, because he was accused of lying to investigators, and that is simply not true," Williams told NFL.com's Steve Wyche. "The very people that have accused him have done some amazingly unscrupulous things along every step of the way."Smith said in a statement he was pleased that Tagliabue took into consideration all of the facts presented to him:
"I'm pleased with the ruling of Mr. Tagliabue to vacate my suspension. I continue to maintain that I did not participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program," Smith said. "I appreciate that Mr. Taglaibue did not rush to judgment, taking into consideration all facts presented to him, before ruling-- something that was clearly not done by Commissioner Goodell in previous hearings. I am looking forward to putting this all behind me and getting back to the game I love. I want to thank the New Orleans Saints, the NFL Players Association, the fans, my friends and family for their continued support throughout this ordeal."
Saints quarterback Drew Brees tweeted his support of the players shortly after the suspensions were vacated: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated. Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
An NFL probe that covered three seasons concluded that Vilma and Smith were ring-leaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts." The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program.
The players have been allowed to play while appeals are pending, though Fujita is on injured reserve and Hargrove is not with a team. Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were vacated by an appeal panel created by the league's collective bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them with some modifications. Meanwhile, the players have challenged the NFL's handling of the entire process in federal court.
Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the NFL Players Association, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses in the probe. Those witnesses included former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.