The four players suspended by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell over their involvement in an alleged bounty program with the New Orleans Saints from 2009-11 had their suspensions vacated by an appeals panel Friday.
The decision prompted the league to immediately reinstate the players -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, defensive end Anthony Hargrove and linebacker Scott Fujita -- until Goodell can hold an expedited hearing to further clarify the suspensions.
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Smith is expected to suit up for the Saints in their opener against the Redskins, and Fujita, who now is with the Browns, is set to play against the Eagles. Hargrove currently is not with a team. Vilma, who was suspended for the entire 2012 season, is out with a knee injury.
Goodell still might suspend the players but if he does, the panel said, he must be more specific about why he is sanctioning the players. According to the appeals panel's decision, it was unclear whether Goodell was disciplining the players over salary-cap violations or conduct detrimental to the league. So the panel issued a ruling vacating the suspensions until Goodell clarifies exactly how much he was penalizing the players for their pay-for-performance program or for participating in an "intent to injure" program.
Goodell has the power to discipline players for participating in an "intent to injure" program but not salary-cap issues, which falls under the purview of Special Master Stephen Burbank, who acts as an arbitrator for player management issues.
"Consistent with the panel's decision, commissioner Goodell will, as directed, make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed for violating the NFL's pay-for-performance / bounty rule," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said.
"Victory is mine!!!!" Vilma wrote, on his Twitter account when he heard the news about the decision.
Smith wrote on his Twitter account, "Thank you to everyone involved in the process of this solution. And everyone who supported us through this whole ordeal."
The timing of Goodell's expedited decision is uncertain, although a person familiar with the league's situation said it will not occur before Sunday's games. So despite the players' delight over Friday's ruling, they still face the possibility of being suspended at a later date.
The players had appealed a decision by Burbank, who had ruled that Goodell had the authority to issue the suspensions. The appeals panel said Goodell had the power to sanction the players only for conduct violations.
Friday's decision does not affect any of the coaches or the general manager suspended by Goodell over the bounty program. Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the 2012 season, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has been suspended indefinitely, assistant head coach Joe Vitt was suspended for six games and general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for eight games.
Because the coaches and GM are not bound by the collective-bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players' union, they are not tied to the appeals panel's decision. All but Williams appealed their suspensions, but Goodell upheld them.