New Orleans is rejoicing, the NFL league offices are likely grimacing and the players probably feel justified for fighting the case. But are they done fighting? Perhaps not: all the players involved could try and recover damages against the NFL or Saints for their now-lifted suspensions.
What's fascinating too, is that each suspension was lifted for, technically, a different reason.
In order to make Tuesday's ruling a little more clear, let's look at the players' ruling case-by-case, with the actual context of Goodell's initial ruling and Tagliabue's subsequent ruling and determine how likely it is that any of the players could take action against the league or the Saints.
"Commissioner Goodell found that Vilma endorsed, agreed to and financially contributed to the Program and offered a $10,000 bounty reward to any Saints' player who could knock Vikings' quarterback Brett Favre out of the Saints-Vikings NFC Championship game in January 2010," Tagliabue wrote. "The evidence as to whether Vilma made such an offer is sharply disputed, but other key points are undisputed: the Saints' coaches conducted, directed and choreographed all defensive team meetings; in the same defensive team meeting where Vilma allegedly offered a bounty, the Saints' defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, admits that he offered a $5,000 bounty reward of his own to knock Favre out of the game; and Williams admitted that he was the responsible team official who unfortunately let the team meeting get out of control."
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When ruling on Vilma's case, Tagliabue wrote that he "neither excuse nor condone the alleged offer of a bounty on Favre, whether offered by any player, coach, other Saints' employee or third party. Such conduct has no place in the game of professional football."
However, Tagliabue believes that he "cannot, however, uphold a multi-game 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. Nor can I find justified a suspension where Williams and other Saints' personnel so carefully crafted an environment that would encourage and allow a player to make such an ill-advised and imprudent offer."
On that basis, Tagliabue vacated Vilma's suspension. Vilma is already pursuing a lawsuit.
"Commissioner Goodell found that Fujita offered his own incentive program to reward big plays, not including rewards for cart-offs and knockouts, and that he failed to report the existence of the Program," Tagliabue wrote in his ruling. "Two dozen other Saints' defensive players were aware of the Program, many participated in it and all were present at defensive team meetings that are central to the events under review here. Fujita was suspended for one game."
However, Tagliabue ruled that "it is undisputed that Fujita did not participate in the Program including cartoffs and knockouts, and that his participation in a 'non-injury' pay-for-performance pool is typically subject only to club discipline."
He therefore found that Fujita's actions "were not conduct detrimental and vacate his suspension."
This is a huge win for Fujita and could make him a candidate to try and recover damages from the NFL if he believes his reputation was harmed by the bounty scandal.
"Commissioner Goodell found that Hargrove falsely answered questions put to him by an NFL investigator during the initial investigation of Saints' misconduct in March 2010," Tagliabue wrote. "That investigation was obstructed in multiple ways by the Saints' head coach, senior coaches and other team officials, including their instructing Hargrove to answer questions falsely, though it remains unclear what exactly Hargrove was asked by investigators regarding the Program. Hargrove was suspended seven games, for which he was credited with having served five games, leaving a suspension of two games."
In his ruling, Tagliabue once again blamed the Saints organization for Hargrove obstructing the NFL investigation, writing that "the comprehensive, overt and ongoing nature of the obstruction by coaches and their direct instructions to Hargrove to lie, combined with their control over his football career, it is clear that Hargrove was under tremendous pressure to follow the chain of command in order to keep his job."
Using that basis, Tagliabue vacated Hargrove's suspension. Given that Hargrove's still a free agent and hasn't been able to find employment after being released by the Packers (which occurred after the original bounty suspensions), it's quite possible he has a case against the league, or even the Saints.
"Commissioner Goodell found that Smith endorsed, agreed to and financially contributed to the Program," Tagliabue wrote. "Many other Saints' defensive players participated in the Program similar to Smith without suspension. He was suspended for four games."
When he issued the ruling on Tuesday, Tagliabue wrote that "singling out" Smith because he's a leader of the Saints defense is "inappropriate" and that receiving additional punishment simply for being a "team leader" isn't something that lines up consistently with NFL punishment.
On that basis, Tagliabue vacated Smith's suspension. Smith, as he's played the entire season for the Saints, probably has the least strong case against the league of the four players.
On Tuesday afternoon, after Tagliabue had lifted the suspensions, Smith issued the following statement:
"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. 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."
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