The suspensions handed to four players for their roles in the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal have been overturned, the NFL said yesterday.

Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove were initially suspended in May when the NFL identified them as having leadership roles in a program that gave players cash rewards for knocking opponents out of games from 2009-2011.

But while appearing to support the league's findings on the scheme, former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, appointed to handle the second round of appeals, ruled that the players should not be suspended.

"Unlike Saints' broad organizational misconduct, player appeals involve sharply focused issues of alleged individual player misconduct in several different aspects," Tagliabue said in a statement released by the league. "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' organization."

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's investigation had concluded that Saints linebacker Vilma, who was originally hit with a season-long ban, and Saints defensive end Smith, who received a four-game suspension, were key figures in the bounty scheme.

The initial suspensions were vacated in September by a three-member appeals panel, which asked NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to clarify his reasons for the bans. Goodell then issued new punishments, which were the subject of the latest appeal.

The NFL stood by its decisions and the process surrounding the bounty case, which was ultimately reviewed by Goodell, two grievance arbitrators, an appeals panel and, finally, Tagliabue.

"The decisions have made clear that the Saints operated a bounty program in violation of league rules for three years, that the program endangered player safety, and that the commissioner has the authority under the CBA [collective bargaining agreement] to impose discipline for those actions as conduct detrimental to the league," the NFL said in a statement released on Twitter. "Strong action was taken in this matter to protect player safety and ensure that bounties would be eliminated from football."

Vilma, who like the other players was allowed to play while waiting for the appeal result, had already filed a defamation lawsuit against Goodell and intends to continue with it, his lawyer told NFL.com.

"Jonathan intends to continue to pursue the defamation lawsuit in order to reclaim his reputation," attorney Peter Ginsberg said. "We're pleased that the unjust penalties have been overturned, but this is only one piece in remedying the situation for Jonathan."