By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Four players suspended for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' cash-for-hits program had their bans overturned on Tuesday, ending a scandal that has hung over the National Football League (NFL) for most of the year.
Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove were suspended in May after an NFL investigation found them to have had leadership roles in a program that gave players cash rewards for knocking opponents out of games from 2009-2011.
But while backing the league's main findings on the bounty scheme, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, appointed to handle the appeals, ruled that the players should not be banned.
"I affirm Commissioner Goodell's factual findings 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,'" Tagliabue wrote in his decision.
"However, for the reasons set forth in this decision, I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players."
Tagliabue's reasoning was based on precedent, arguing that the league had not previously fined or suspended players for such activities and chose to pin the blame more on the Saints coaches and executives who he said had "contaminated" the case.
Tagliabue cleared former Saints linebacker Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, saying his involvement was in a different non-injury focused bonus pool for performance and not in the pool which rewarded "cart offs" and "knockouts."
The ruling is the latest twist in a scandal that rocked one of the NFL's premier franchises and included a season-long ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton and an indefinite suspension for former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The NFL's investigation had concluded that Saints linebacker Vilma, who was originally hit with a season-long ban, and Saints defensive end Smith, who received a four-game suspension, were key figures in the bounty scheme.
The initial suspensions were vacated in September by a three-member appeals panel, which asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to clarify his reasons for the bans. Goodell then issued new punishments, which were the subject of the latest appeal.
The NFL stood by its decisions and the process surrounding the bounty case, which was ultimately reviewed by Goodell, two grievance arbitrators, an appeals panel and, finally, Tagliabue.
"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 (Collective Bargaining Agreement) to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league," the NFL said in a statement released on Twitter.
"Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."
Vilma, who like the other players was allowed to play while waiting for the appeal result, had already filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell and intends to continue with it, his lawyer told NFL.com.
"Jonathan intends to continue to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation," attorney Peter Ginsberg said.
"We're pleased that the unjust penalties have been overturned, but this is only one piece in remedying the situation for Jonathan."
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) welcomed Tagliabue's decision, saying he had agreed with their own view that the discipline was inappropriate.
"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," the NFLPA said in a statement.
Saints quarterback Drew Brees, whose team has struggled this season and appears likely to miss the playoffs, was also pleased with the verdict.
"Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated," Brees wrote on his Twitter account. "Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
(Reporting by Simon Evans in Minai; Editing by Frank Pingue)