Saints player suspensions overturned on appeal; ‘Bounty Four’ free to play this Sunday

A three-member panel has overturned the suspensions handed down to four players by the NFL in the bounty case, and all four suspended players -- New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita, and at-large defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove -- are free to play this NFL season. It is a crushing defeat for the league and commissioner Roger Goodell.

Hargrove had been released by the Green Bay Packers on Aug. 24, but his availability could have the Packers re-thinking that decision. Vilma had been suspended for the entire 2012 season, while Fujita was hit with a three-game ban and Smith was set to be out four games.

The original appeal ruling, given by arbiter Stephen Burbank, opined that Goodell was within his authority to suspend the four players for alleged "pay-to-injure" schemes and other pay-for-performance actions. Per the panel ruling, Goodell can re-suspend the players if there is concrete evidence of a pay-to-injure scheme, but he will have to be much more proactive about actually producing evidence this time. The panel did reportedly rule that there was evidence of pay-to-injure during the 2009-2011 timeline, but what evidence that may have been is still unknown.

"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."

Later on Friday, in a memo to all 32 teams, the NFL sounded a bit more resolute.

Nothing in today's decision contradicts any of the facts found in the investigation into this matter, or absolves any player of responsibility for conduct detrimental. Nor does the decision in any way suggest what discipline would be appropriate for conduct that lies within the authority of the Commissioner.

Per the panel's direction, the Commissioner will promptly reconsider the matter and make a determination of the appropriate discipline consistent with the standards set forth in today's decision. All clubs will be advised when that decision is made.

Adam Schefter of reported that while Goodell will work to rule again, he will not do so before Week 1 of the regular season.

[Related: Former Saints WR Joe Horn talks to Yahoo! Sports Radio about the appeal decision]

If Goodell wanted to, he could say that all the suspensions were solely for pay-to-injure, and re-implement all of them as they were, and it's important to keep in mind that if the players are unhappy with the new suspensions, they can seek legal redress in the New Orleans court of Judge Helen G. Berrigan. Berrigan, who recently heard arguments in the NFL's appeal of Vilma's defamation suit against Goodell, said that she wanted more information from the league, but that she would likely wait for the panel ruling before making a decision of her own.

However, if the players go back before Judge Berrigan, the NFL is unlikely to be happy with the results. On Aug. 10, Berrigan said from the bench that if she could legally do so, she would rule in Vilma's favor, based on the evidence the league had produced.

"The only thing better would have been a decision," Vilma said outside the courthouse. "I came here with no expectations. I'm glad she could see through some of the b.s. I'm cool with that until we get a decision. Patience is my best friend."

On Aug. 21, Judge Berrigan said that she wanted more information on when Goodell decided that the suspensions, implemented in late March, would come down, in relation to when he made the suspensions public. The NFL Players Association argued that it had asked the NFL to defer discipline against the players so that all parties could review evidence.

From that order:

"The Court is aware that Goodell stated, during the March 21, 2012 interview with the NFL Network and ESPN, that he would have disciplined the players at the same time as the coaches but for the NFLPA's indication that they 'wanted some time to investigate [the allegations] and talk to its own players. The Court is asking for the specific date on which this request occurred.  If the date is already in the record, the parties may simply cite to the relevant document in the record; if it is not, then the parties shall submit the relevant evidence."

If not, as Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk pointed out, "the statements made on March 21 by Goodell regarding Vilma could be viewed as unnecessary to the disciplinary process and thus not within the confines of Goodell's job duties and, most importantly, completely beyond the scope of the labor agreement's arbitration procedures."

This would jibe with what NFLPA lead outside counsel Richard Smith told Shutdown Corner via email in May. "If these matters are not barred altogether by the release in the CBA, they are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the System Arbitrator, not Roger Goodell," Smith told us. "If the System Arbitrator were to find that he does not have exclusive jurisdiction over the entire matter, the only conceivable issue remaining would fall within the on-the-field  provisions of the CBA that culminate in an appeal.  None of it is within Roger Goodell's jurisdiction.  He had no jurisdiction to take the action he took, period."

The Saints are the biggest winners in this specific case, as they will get Will Smith back against Robert Griffin III and the Washington Redskins. Smith is the Saints' most effective pass rusher, and under new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, New Orleans' defense is not expected to blitz as often as they did under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who is serving an indefinite suspension for his part in the bounty scandal. Vilma is currently rehabbing an injured knee, and Fujita is a depth player -- albeit a valuable one -- at this point in his career.

Saints coaches and executives, including head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis, and assistant coach Joe Vitt, will remain suspended at this time because they were not part of the appeal filed by the players.

[Related: Saints' Sean Payton is still coaching … his son's team of 6th-graders]

A very happy Vilma tweeted out the news:

"Congratulations to our players and the Saints organization. A 3 judge panel UNANIMOUSLY overturned the bounty suspensions for players," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said on Twitter.

"Glad to have my teammates Will Smith and Jon Vilma back!! Bounty suspensions were overturned!! Who Dat!!" Saints running back Pierre Thomas added on his account.

Stay tuned for much more on this breaking story as more details are released.

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