Four NFL players suspended for their roles in a cash-for-hits bounty scheme have had their bans overturned.
Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita were all suspended by Roger Goodell, the league commissioner, seven months ago for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' bounty programme that saw players given financial rewards for injuring opponents from 2009-2011.
Vilma had been suspended for the entire 2012 season, while Hargrove was originally given an eight-game penalty. Smith was banned for four games and Fujita was slapped with a three-game suspension.
The Saints were also fined $500,000 and forfeited second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013.
Each of the four players were permitted to play regular season games while the appeals process was underway.
But while backing the league's main findings on the bounty scheme, Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL Commissioner appointed to handle the appeals, ruled that the players should not be banned.
"Unlike Saints' broad organisational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects," Tagliabue said.
"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' organisation."
The ruling is the latest twist in a scandal that rocked one of the NFL's premier franchises and included a season-long ban for Saints head coach Sean Payton and an indefinite suspension for former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
The NFL said it "respected" Tagliabue's ruling and that a strong message had been sent.
"We respect Mr Tagliabue's decision, which underscores the due process afforded players in NFL disciplinary matters," the NFL said in a statement.
"The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty programme in violation of league rules for three years, that the programme endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the CBA to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league."
Tagliabue interviewed the four players, as well as other witnesses, including members of the Saints' staff at the time.
The NFL Players Association (NFLPA) welcomed Tagliabue's decision, saying he had agreed with their own view that the discipline was inappropriate.
"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," the NFLPA said in a statement.
Drew Brees, the New Orleans quarterback, whose team has struggled this season and appears likely to miss the playoffs, was also pleased with the verdict.
"Congratulations to our players for having the suspensions vacated," Brees wrote on his Twitter account. "Unfortunately, there are some things that can never be taken back."
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