While removing the suspensions, Tagliabue was stern and direct in his condemnation of the Saints.
Tagliabue's statement released today: "I strongly condemn the misconduct of the Saints’ coaches found by Commissioner Goodell and confirmed in the record developed during this appeal. That severe misconduct played a substantial role in my deciding whether to sustain, in whole or in part, or vacate the discipline to be imposed upon these four players. Equally, in vacating the players’ suspensions I do not in any degree condone their behavior. I do not approve any of the misconduct in which Commissioner Goodell found the players to have engaged, though I do not find Fujita’s conduct equivalent to the other players. But each player made choices that do not reflect favorably on him.
"Moreover, there is evidence in the record that suggests that Commissioner Goodell could have disciplined a greater number of Saints’ players for the events that occurred here.
"This sad chapter in the otherwise praiseworthy history of the New Orleans Saints casts no executive, coach or player in a favorable light."
Current Saints Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, former Saint and current Cleveland Brown Scott Fujita and former Saint and current free agent Anthony Hargrove are no longer suspended, though all players served all or part of their suspensions already. In fact, Tagliabue cleared the name of Fujita while insisting that Vilma, Smith and Hargrove were certainly guilty of participating in a bounty program.
Tagliabue wrote, "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.” However, ... I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players... The League has not previously suspended or fined players for some of the activities in which these players participated and has in the recent past imposed only minimal fines on NFL Clubs - not players - of a mere $25,000 or less."
From Tagliabue's statement: "I 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...
"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."
While saying that, Tagliabue made sure to uphold current commissioner Roger Goodell's authority to enforce league discipline, specifically on the team. "My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines. However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
In the ruling that vacated the players' punishments, Tagliabue did nothing to clear the name of the Saints organization, which was in no uncertain words scolded by Tagliabue: "Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects."
In multiple parts of his statement, Tagliabue indicted the Saints organization for a thorough and effective cover-up and obstruction campaign, noting that the "entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints’ organization."
Suspensions currently being served by Saints head coach Sean Payton (one season) and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams (indefinite) were unchanged.
Gabe Feldman, Director of Tulane Sports Law Program, wrote shortly after on twitter, "Tagliabue decision obviously huge win for players, but it's carefully written to uphold and protect broad commish powers in future cases."
Jonathan Vilma pressed Goodell to make public more evidence and hearing transcripts, while confirming that he would continue with his defamation lawsuit against Goodell. That defamation lawsuit, despite the removal of the punishment, is surely weakened by Tagliabue's strong statements on Vilma's behavior.
The NFLPA released a curiously inaccurate statement: "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." Tagliabue affirmed no such thing.
While many will point to this case as distracting to the Saints on and off the field and directly impactful considering suspensions to Smith and Vilma, many more factors have contributed to the Saints' 5-8 record with three games remaining in the season. Not the least of which is the remarkable drop off in the performance of QB Drew Brees, who has tossed nine interceptions in three games.
But most impactful to the Saints' lost 2012 season is the discipline to the Saints' coaching staff, including suspensions to Sean Payton and interim coach Joe Vitt, where suspensions were found in no uncertain terms justifiable by Tagliabue.