Everyone involved claimed victory after former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue overturned the suspension of four current or former New Orleans Saints players in his bounty ruling, which means it was a successful sitdown.

Both sides came away with something -- not the truth and nothing to be proud of. But the players can claim vindication because they were not penalized, and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell can claim the league did the responsible thing in punishing the Saints.

What happened in this process, though, is that an essential question was lost in the midst of the accusations and appeals. Is there any doubt the Saints had a bounty program that was designed to reward players financially for hits that injured other players?

No. No doubt. This happened.

The players got off without penalties. Tagliabue put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Saints and their coaching staff. But the players who are portraying themselves as victims -- like Anthony Hargrove, who appeared with his attorney Sunday on "The NFL on CBS" -- have zero credibility.

Bounties were paid. That is the bottom line.

The notion that this was some kind of conspiracy that unfairly targeted the Saints and its players is laughable. Here you had the Saints -- an embarrassing doormat of a franchise for decades that transformed after Hurricane Katrina into the league's feel-good story on the way to a Super Bowl title -- and now the NFL intentionally was going to wreck the franchise?

If you've watched "Law & Order: Criminal Intent" enough, you know what is missing: motive.

Pushing the bountygate investigation likely had a secondary purpose: to present an image of a league trying to protect its players, a league facing a mountain of lawsuits claiming liability for concussion damage.

But to manufacture this whole scandal, as the players have suggested, is absurd.

Tagliabue said in a statement that the players -- save for Scott Fujita -- engaged in conduct detrimental to the league for their roles in the bounty program. But Tagliabue also said the "entire case has been contaminated by the coaches and others in the Saints' organization."

"The Saints' "coaches and managers led a deliberate, unprecedented and effective effort to obstruct the NFL's investigation," Tagliabue wrote.

Tagliabue upheld the yearlong suspension of coach Sean Payton, the six-game suspension of interim coach Joe Vitt and the indefinite suspension of the reported ringleader of the bounty program, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The Saints still face a federal investigation for their misuse of prescription painkillers, related to the 2010 lawsuit filed by the team's former security chief. And the franchise's own internal investigation, being done by former FBI boss Louis Freeh, is still to come.

Based on what Tagliabue said about the Saints' behavior, that ought to be one heck of a report.

Examiner columnist Thom Loverro is the co-host of "The Sports Fix" from noon to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on ESPN980 and espn980.com. Contact him at tloverro@washingtonexaminer.com.