Players Association says NFL should issue an apology to players

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Four players embroiled for nearly 10 months in the NFL's bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints

no longer have to worry about suspensions or fines, and can try to move on with their careers on the field.

Off the field, the fallout from the dispute could endure for some time, particularly in federal court.

In a surprising rejection of his successor's

overreaching punishments, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue threw

out "all

discipline" current Commissioner Roger Goodell had imposed on 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, appointed by Goodell to handle

player appeals in the matter, essentially absolved Fujita, but agreed

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."

The 22-page ruling Tuesday allowed both

sides to claim victory more than nine months after the league first

revealed the Saints'

bounty scandal to shocked fans, describing a performance pool

operated by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams

that, among other things, rewarded hits that injured opponents.

The four players punished by Goodell have

maintained they were innocent of taking part in bounty program from the

beginning,

saying they never intended to injure anyone on the field. Vilma

even has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell in U.S.

District Court in Louisiana, and his lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and

Duke Williams, said they intend to continue to pursue those

claims "vigorously."

"Commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of

Commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by

the baseless

allegations lodged against Jonathan," Vilma's lawyers said a

statement. "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."

While no other players have yet filed similar lawsuits, Hargrove's agent, Phil Williams, said this week that "the NFL dragged

(Hargrove's) name through the mud and lied about him," costing him an entire season of his career.

Hargrove was cut by Green Bay shortly before the regular season. His agent said a number of other teams inquired about signing

him, but only after they were confident that bounty matter had been resolved. That has finally happened, as far as the NFL

is concerned, but there are only three weeks left in the regular season.

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 who was facing a one-game

suspension, is on injured reserve. Hargrove's suspension

initially stood at eight games but was reduced to seven with

credit for his first five games missed as a free agent, essentially

reducing the ban he'd been facing to two games.

Appearing on "CBS This Morning" on Wednesday, NFL Players Association chief DeMaurice Smith said the NFL should issue an apology

to the players.

"The investigation that the League did was

sloppy, the investigation that they did was more outcome-focused than

frankly process-focused,"

Smith said. "First and foremost, they should say they're sorry

because they've maligned the character of good players."

Tagliabue's ruling did nothing to vindicate

Saints coaches or the organization. Rather, the former commissioner

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 — one key example was

Vilma's offer

of $10,000 to any teammate who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC

championship game at the end of the 2009 season — 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.

"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines," Tagliabue said in his ruling.

"However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."

Tagliabue said he decided, in this

particular case, that it was in the best interest of all parties

involved to eliminate

player punishment because of the enduring acrimony it has caused

between the league and the NFL Players Association. He added

that he hoped doing so would allow the NFL and union to move

forward collaboratively to the more important matters of enhancing

player safety.

"To be clear: this case should not be

considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits

player suspensions

or fines," his ruling said.

Tagliabue oversaw the second round of appeals by players, who initially opposed his appointment.

The former commissioner found Goodell's

actions historically disproportionate to past punishment of players for

similar behavior,

which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions. He

also stated that it was very difficult to determine whether

the pledges players made were genuine, or simply motivational

ploys, particularly because Saints defenders never demonstrated

a pattern of dirty play on the field.

"The relationship of the discipline for the

off-field 'talk' and actual on-field conduct must be carefully

calibrated and

reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common

sense and fairness," Tagliabue wrote in his 22-page opinion.

"If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms,

meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a

rigorous standard that separated real threats or 'bounties' from

rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry

that would lead nowhere."

Saints quarterback Drew Brees commented on

Twitter: "Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions

vacated. Unfortunately,

there are some things that can never be taken back."

The Saints opened the season 0-4 and are now 5-8 and virtually out of the playoffs after appearing in the playoffs the three

previous seasons, including the franchise's only Super Bowl title to conclude the 2009 season.

Shortly before the regular season, the initial suspensions were thrown out by an appeals panel created by the NFL's collective

bargaining agreement. Goodell then reissued them, with some changes, only to have them overturned.

"We respect Mr. Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the

league said in a statement.

"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 (NFL's collective bargaining agreement)

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."

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 appeal to play out before deciding

whether to get involved. The judge issued an order Tuesday

giving the NFLPA and Vilma until Wednesday to notify the court if

they found Tagliabue's ruling acceptable.

The NFLPA indicated that it was largely satisfied by how the process worked out, so some federal court claims against the

NFL could be dropped on Wednesday, even as Vilma's defamation claims remain.

"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," the NFLPA said in a statement.

"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."

NFL investigators had concluded that Vilma

and Smith were ringleaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded

injurious tackles

labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts." Witnesses including Gregg

Williams said Vilma made a $10,000 pledge for anyone who

knocked Favre out of the NFC title game in January 2010. However,

Tagliabue found it was not clear if the pledge was genuine

or simply a motivational tactic.

"There is more than enough evidence to

support Commissioner Goodell's findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a

bounty" on Favre,

Tagliabue wrote. "I cannot, however, uphold a multigame suspension

where there is no evidence that a player's speech prior

to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing

field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself

to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine."

The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to

NFL investigators to help cover up the program. The players have from

the beginning

denied they ever took the field intending to injure opponents,

while Hargrove has said he never lied about a bounty program,

because there wasn't one.

Goodell suspended Gregg Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season.

Tagliabue's ruling comes after a new round

of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma's attorneys and the

NFLPA, which

represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL

witnesses. Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints

assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and

whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being "a

dirty organization," jump-started the probe.

Smith said he was pleased that Tagliabue vacated his suspension.

"I continue to maintain that I did not

participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program,"

he added. "I

appreciate that Mr. Tagliabue 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."