Tagliabue didn't find the players completely without fault, though. He said Vilma and defensive end Will Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays — including hard tackles — while defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.
Vilma and Smith, suspended four games, have been playing for the Saints while the appeals were pending. Hargrove is not with a team. Tagliabue cleared linebacker Scott Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns but on injured reserve, of conduct detrimental to the league.
“It was a very thoughtful decision, but again my one disappointment is at some point players have to be held accountable, particularly when you find that they did participate in this scheme,” New York Giants co-owner John Mara said.
Tagliabue criticized Saints coaches and the organization by saying they 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.
Goodell said he disagreed with the assertion that the commissioner owed the players an apology.
“Commissioner Tagliabue said there's no one here that should feel good about their role in this with respect to the Saints,” Goodell said. “I think to have a bounty program where you're targeting players for injury is completely unacceptable in the NFL, and it's clear that occurred for three years despite all the denials.”
NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash said Tagliabue's ruling answered the criticism that he would favor the league because he used to run it.
“I think he did exactly what he was charged to do, which was to be independent and to have full authority,” Pash said.