Two New Orleans Saints players suspended by the NFL for their role in the team's bounty system had their suspensions unanimously overturned on Friday, less than 48 hours before the team is set to open its 2012 season against the Washington Redskins. The case will now go back to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who could impose new penalties based on different violations.
A three-person collective bargaining panel overturned the season-long suspension of linebacker Jonathan Vilma and the four-game suspension of defensive end Will Smith. The three-game suspension of Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita and eight-game band for free agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove have also been lifted.
The NFL said the players are reinstated and are immediately eligible to play in Week 1, but hinted that the saga may not be complete yet.
"Consistent with the panel's decision, Commissioner Goodell will, as directed, make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed for violating the league's pay-for-performance/bounty rule," the NFL said in a statement. "Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend."
In essence, Goodell will now restart the process of determining punishment. If he finds evidence that the players intended to hurt opposing players, he could suspend them for that violation, not the wide-ranging ones he originally imposed.
The players were suspended in May for alleged roles in a system that put bounties on injuries to opposing players, including quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. Vilma was said to have put up $10,000 of his own money to get both QBs out of playoff games.
He denied the accusations and defended himself after the suspensions.
"I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player," he said in a written statement at the time. "I also never put any money into a bounty pool or helped to create a bounty pool intended to pay out money for injuring other players. I have always conducted myself in a professional and proud manner."
Initial appeals to Goodell were dismissed weeks later.
"I'm not surprised," quarterback Drew Brees said of the lifted suspensions, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. "Obviously I felt like they saw the information that we've seen for a long time."
Suspensions for coaches Sean Payton, Gregg Williams and Joe Vitt and general manager Mickey Loomis are still active. The coaches weren't eligible for a collective bargaining panel.
By Chris Chase, USA TODAY