By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
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."