Now, with the player suspensions overturned, the end could be near for a nearly 10-month dispute over how the NFL handled an investigation that covered three seasons and gathered about 50,000 pages of documents.
"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 round of appeals 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.
Vilma also has filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell, which also is being handled by Berrigan. Vilma's lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams, said by email to The Associated Press that they would "pursue the defamation action vigorously."
NFL investigators found that Vilma and Smith were ringleaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts." Witnesses including Williams also said Vilma made a $10,000 pledge for anyone who knocked then-Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2010 NFC title game. However, Tagliabue found it was not clear if the pledge was genuine or simply a motivational prop.
"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 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."
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 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.
"We believe that when a fair due process takes place, a fair outcome is the result," the players' union said in a statement. "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.
"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."
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."
A statement released by Vilma's lawyers on his behalf said the linebacker is "relieved and gratified that Jonathan no longer needs to worry about facing an unjustified suspension.
"On the other hand, Commissioner Tagliabue's rationalization of Commissioner Goodell's actions does nothing to rectify the harm done by the baseless allegations lodged against Jonathan. 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."