Paul Tagliabue, pictured here speaking to the media during a news conference… (Louis Lanzano / Associated…)
Faced with player concerns about how fair he could be in handling the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Friday handed off that responsibility to predecessor Paul Tagliabue.
Goodell notified the Saints and the players' union that he has appointed Tagliabue, the league's former commissioner, to be the hearing officer to "decide the appeals and bring the matter to a prompt and fair conclusion."
The four players suspended in the scandal — Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove — had asked Goodell to recuse himself from hearing the appeals, as had the NFL Players Assn.
"I have held two hearings to date and have modified the discipline in several respects based on my recent meetings with the players," Goodell said in a written statement. "I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue's decisions."
The initial suspensions, handed down by Goodell in May, were vacated Sept. 7 by a three-member appeals panel, which asked the commissioner to clarify his reasons for the suspensions.
In the newly issued punishments, Vilma remained banned for the season but was allowed to keep six weeks of pay from being on the physically unable to perform list; Fujita, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, had his suspension reduced from three games to one; Hargrove, a free agent, had his suspension reduced from eight to seven games; and Smith's four-game suspension was unchanged.
In a recent court filing, the union asked for "a neutral [arbitrator] of unquestioned integrity who can restore public confidence in this process and mitigate the damage which the NFL's handling of 'Bountygate' has inflicted upon the game."
Said Goodell: "Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters. He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity."