NEW ORLEANS — More than nine months after the NFL first disclosed its bounty investigation of the New Orleans Saints, four players will finally get a ruling on whether their initial suspensions are upheld, reduced or thrown out.
Former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was appointed to handle a second round of player appeals to the league, has informed all parties he planned to rule by Tuesday afternoon. His decision could affect whether two current Saints — linebacker Jonathan Vilma and defensive end Will Smith — get to play out the season.
If the sanctioned players find Tagliabue's decision palatable, that could finally bring the bounty saga to an end. If not, it will be up to a federal judge to either disqualify Tagliabue or let his ruling stand.
Even if Tagliabue maintains the suspensions, any punishment will be delayed a week, allowing Vilma and Smith to at least play this Sunday at home against Tampa Bay, a person familiar with the decision said.
The delay is aimed at giving U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan in New Orleans time to review Tagliabue's ruling and decide if she still believes she must take the unusual step of getting involved in a collectively bargained process in order to protect the players' rights, the person told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Monday because no ruling had been announced.
If Vilma, Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove get the ruling they seek, it would discredit an NFL probe — overseen by Commissioner Roger Goodell — that covered three seasons and gathered about 50,000 pages of documents.
The probe concluded that Vilma and Smith were ring-leaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as "cart-offs" and "knockouts."
The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program.