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NFL investigators had concluded that Vilma and Smith were ringleaders of a cash-for-hits program that rewarded injurious tackles labeled as “cart-offs” and “knockouts.” Witnesses including Gregg Williams said Vilma made a $10,000 pledge for anyone who knocked Favre out of the NFC title game in January 2010. However, Tagliabue found it was not clear if the pledge was genuine or simply a motivational tactic.

“There is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell’s findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty” on Favre, Tagliabue wrote. “I cannot, however, uphold a multigame suspension where there is no evidence that a player’s speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine.”

The NFL also concluded that Hargrove lied to NFL investigators to help cover up the program. The players have from the beginning denied they ever took the field intending to injure opponents, while Hargrove has said he never lied about a bounty program, because there wasn’t one.

Goodell suspended Gregg Williams indefinitely, while banning Saints head coach Sean Payton for a full season.

Tagliabue’s ruling comes after a new round of hearings that for the first time allowed Vilma’s attorneys and the NFLPA, which represents the other three players, to cross-examine key NFL witnesses. Those witnesses included Williams and former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo, who was fired after the 2009 season and whose email to the league, accusing the Saints of being “a dirty organization,” jump-started the probe.

Smith said he was pleased that Tagliabue vacated his suspension.

“I continue to maintain that I did not participate in a pay-to-injure program or facilitate any such program,” he added. “I appreciate that Mr. Tagliabue did not rush to judgment, taking into consideration all facts presented to him, before ruling _ something that was clearly not done by Commissioner Goodell in previous hearings.”