(CBS News) Professional football's New Orleans Saints have had a season of turmoil. Nine months ago, the team was accused of paying reward money for causing injuries on the field.
But on Tuesday, the suspensions of four players accused of being part of that bounty system were thrown out.
Back in October, National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell removed himself from hearing any appeals in the so-called "Bountygate" scandal, and chose his predecessor, former commissioner Paul Tagliabue, to make the final ruling. For many, the decision was surprising: Tagliabue essentially overruled Goodell and dropped the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans' players.
The NFL alleges that, starting in 2009, under defensive coordinator Greg Williams, the Saints ran a "pay-for-pain" program, which rewarded players for intentionally hurting opposing players. In the NFC Championship game between the Saints and Vikings in 2010, Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre was allegedly a specific target. In March of 2012, New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma was suspended for the entire season. His teammate, defensive end Will Smith, received a lesser punishment, as did Scott Fujita, now with the Browns, and Anthony Hargrove, now a free agent.
Just this past Sunday, Hargrove spoke with James Brown on CBS Sports' "The NFL Today" -- and denied the bounty program ever existed. Brown asked, "There was never any payments offered at all for injuring an opponent?"
Hargrove replied, "Never payment nor discussions ever talking about injuring our opponents or anybody."
But Tagliabue came to a very different conclusion -- affirming the NFL's belief the bounty program was very real. But his ruling seems to take the blame off the players, and put it squarely on the New Orleans' coaches: "Senior Saints' coaches conceived, encouraged and directed the program."
On "CBS This Morning," DeMaurice Smith, NFL Players Association executive director, disagreed with the ruling and said there is no evidence that bounties ever existed. He said, "Having seen nearly 50,000 pages of evidence and nearly 20 hours of testimony, I know that there was no bounty put on players by Saints players."
He also said, "I'm disappointed in the National Football League and certainly in the way they conducted an investigation because I now know having read and seen all of the testimony that there was certainly no evidence that the bounties existed and frankly, I was a prosecutor in [Washington, D.C.] for 10 years. I understand how to do investigations. And the investigation that the league did was sloppy, the investigation that they did was more outcome-focused than frankly process-focused."
Smith called on the NFL to apologize to players. "First and foremost, they should say they're sorry because they've maligned the character of good players," Smith said, and then added, "and if they certainly believe that they are right, the one thing that Roger Goodell could do is simply release the transcripts and we will all know the truth."
Asked if the NFL should apologize to the Saints head coach Sean Payton, who was not permitted to participate this season, Smith said "yes," but acknowledged "there's a difference between where the players were and the coaches are."
"The difference is the players have a union," Smith said. "And at a time when unions are under attack, this is what unions do. We fight. And we believe there are times when our players are wrongly treated, we will fight for their fairness and fight for fundamental fairness."
Payton remains suspended for the entire season while former defensive coordinator Williams remains suspended indefinitely. Vilma intends to continue his defamation lawsuit against Goodell.
For Smith's full interview, watch the video in the player above.