In what must be the second most damning condemnation of his authoritarian powers since the Pittsburgh Steelers refused to ratify the new CBA because of the unilateral powers bestowed onto the commissioner's office, Roger Goodell today saw all of the sanctions he imposed against the New Orleans Saints players overturned by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual finding 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." However, for the reasons set forth in this decision, I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players.
Per the Official Tagliabue findings the suspensions of Jonathan Vilma, Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita were lifted by Tagliabue based on his findings that they were "minor actors" in the entire "Program" instituted by Saints coaches.
The Program, according to Tagliabue, was "conceived, encouraged and directed by the Saints coaches included cash incentives for plays such as recovering fumbles, interceptions, as well as higher cash incentives to "cart-off" or "knockout" an opposing player.
Because, Tagliabue wrote, "Unlike the Saints' broad organizational misconduct, the player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct on several different aspects of the Saints' Program"
NFL.com quotes Tagliabue as reserving his harshest judgment against the Saints organization itself and in the process diminishing the role the individual players played in the scandal to that of "minor actors":
"Saints' coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation into the Program and the alleged bounty."
The Saints organization was heavily penalized by the league, with a $500,000 fine, the loss of draft picks and the suspension of head coach Sean Payton for a full season, Williams indefinitely, Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games and Saints General Manage Mickey Loomis for eight games.
New Orleans Saints players Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita were initially fined and suspended by the NFL for their alleged participation in a "pay to injure" pool run by then Saints defensive coach Gregg Williams.
Tagliabue apparently determined that the players' parts as minor actors warranted the fines initially levied by the NFL, but did not justify the suspensions, and that out of the four players, he specifically attempts to clear Fujita's name, determining Fujita did not participate in the same actions as Vilma, Hargrove, or Smith, which he described as "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football".
While there may be celebrations on Bourbon Street over the revocation of the suspensions and the attempt by Tagliabue to exonerate Fujita, there should be no mistake over Tagliabue's assessment of the behavior of the Saints coaches and players. The NFL.com article further quotes Tagliabue as finding:
"I strongly condemn the misconduct of the Saints coaches found by Commissioner Goodell and confirmed in the record developed during this appeal," Tagliabue wrote in his decision. "That severe misconduct played a substantial role in my deciding whether to sustain, in whole or in part, or vacate the discipline to be imposed upon these four players.
"Equally, in vacating the players' suspensions I do not in any degree condone their behavior. I do not approve any of the misconduct in which Commissioner Goodell found the players to have engaged, though I do not find Fujita's conduct equivalent to the other players."
According to an USA Today article, nothing that Tagliabue found gave any hope for mitigation of the suspension levied against Peyton:
"Commissioner Goodell's findings and the resulting suspensions of Saints' personnel are final and no longer subject to appeal,"
In the same USA Today article, Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg is quoted as stating of Vilma:
"He was concerned about his reputation and the ability of the NFL to malign him personally,...Jonathan has every intention to pursue his lawsuit against Commsioner Goodell to prove he has been unfairly maligned.''