NEW ORLEANS —
The former commissioner did not entirely exonerate the players, however.
He said Vilma and Smith participated in a performance pool that rewarded key plays — including hard tackles — while Hargrove, following coaches' orders, helped to cover up the program when interviewed by NFL investigators in 2010.
"My affirmation of Commissioner Goodell's findings could certainly justify the issuance of fines," the ruling said. "However, this entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."
Tagliabue said he decided, in this particular case, that it was in the best interest of all parties involved to eliminate player punishment because of the enduring acrimony it has caused between the league and the NFL Players Association. He added that he hoped doing so would allow the NFL and union to move forward collaboratively to the more important matters of enhancing player safety.
"To be clear: this case should not be considered a precedent for whether similar behavior in the future merits player suspensions or fines," his ruling said.
Tagliabue oversaw the second round of player appeals to the league in connection with the cash-for-hits program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams from 2009-2011. The players initially opposed his appointment.
Goodell had given Vilma a full-season suspension, while he gave Smith, Fujita and Hargrove shorter suspensions.
Tagliabue cleared Fujita of conduct detrimental to the league.
The former commissioner found Goodell's actions historically disproportionate to past punishment to players for similar behavior, which had generally been reserved to fines, not suspensions. He also stated that it was very difficult to determine whether the pledges players made were genuine, or simply a motivational ploy, particularly because Saints defenders never demonstrated a pattern of dirty play on the field.
"The relationship of the discipline for the off-field 'talk' and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness," Tagliabue wrote in his 22-page opinion. "If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or 'bounties' from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere."