NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appointed predecessor Paul Tagliabue to hear the appeals of four players suspended in the Saints' bounty scandal.
Goodell said Friday he notified Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove, as well as the players' union, that Tagliabue would be the hearing officer to "decide the appeals and bring the matter to a prompt and fair conclusion."
The union and the four players had asked Goodell to recuse himself, contending he could not fairly rule. Their second set of appeals will be heard Oct. 30.
"Any time we move towards a fair evaluation of the evidence it is a positive development," said Peter Ginsberg, Vilma's attorney. "Commissioner Goodell's belated recognition that he cannot possibly serve as an impartial and unbiased arbitrator is certainly a positive development. And we have enormous respect for Paul Tagliabue.
"Having said that, we now need to learn whether Commissioner Tagliabue plans to provide to us the fundamental rights that Commissioner Goodell ignored, including the right to examine the accusers and to see the evidence, and also we need to consider that Commissioner Tagliabue is counsel to the law firm representing Commissioner Goodell in Jonathan's defamation lawsuit, as well as representing the NFL in Jonathan's challenge to the entire process in this matter."
Vilma was suspended for the 2012 season and Smith was banned four games for his role in the bounties program. Fujita, now with the Browns, was barred three games, since reduced to one. Hargrove is a free agent whose suspension was reduced from eight games to seven.
"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. "I will have no role in the upcoming hearings or in Mr. Tagliabue's decisions."
"Paul Tagliabue is a genuine football authority whose tenure as commissioner was marked by his thorough and judicious approach to all matters," he added. "He has many years of experience in NFL collective bargaining matters and an impeccable reputation for integrity."
Tagliabue was NFL commissioner from 1989-2006 and is a lawyer. For part of that time, Goodell was the league's general counsel.
Goodell said he consulted with NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith before asking Tagliabue to hear these appeals. The collective bargaining agreement with the union that was reached to end the lockout in August 2011 gave Goodell exclusive authority to hear appeals of discipline for conduct detrimental or to appoint someone to hear and decide an appeal.
Goodell periodically has appointed others to hear appeals for club fines, personal conduct suspensions and for matters concerning drug and steroid policy.
"To be clear, I have not consulted with Paul Tagliabue at any point about the Saints' matter, nor has he been any part of the process," Goodell said. "Furthermore, under our process the hearing officer has full authority and complete independence to decide the appeal and determine any procedural issues regarding the hearings."
Goodell handed down the suspension in May and they took effect in July after initial appeals were rejected by Goodell. Those suspensions lasted through training camp before being vacated by a three-member appeals panel that instructed Goodell to start the disciplinary process again and clarify his reasons for suspending the players.
The suspensions were reissued by the NFL last week and promptly appealed by all four players. None of the suspensions is currently in effect because they were appealed within the framework of the NFL's labor agreement.
But all four players have asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to throw out Goodell's disciplinary rulings on the grounds he has demonstrated bias against the players in his handling the bounty investigation. The players say Goodell violated due process rights.
In a recent court filing, the union said: "It is only a neutral (arbitrator) of unquestioned integrity who can restore public confidence in this process and mitigate the damage which the NFL's handling of 'bounty-gate' has inflicted upon the game."
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel in New Orleans contributed to this report.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL