Players’ bounty suspensions overturned on appeal

An appeals panel has overturned the suspensions of four players in the bounty scandal involving the New Orleans Saints, a person familiar with the ruling said Friday.

But the panel’s ruling leaves open the possibility of the league making a renewed attempt to suspend the players, the person said.

“You can bet the league is not giving up on this,” the person said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because neither the NFL nor the players’ union had released its official reaction.

Jonathan Vilma (Mark Lennihan/The Associated Press)

The NFL suspended Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma for the entire season for his role in the bounty scandal, in which the league determined after an investigation that players received cash payments the last three seasons for hits that injured opponents.

Saints defensive end Will Smith was suspended for four games. Former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove was suspended for eight games and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita was suspended for three games.

The Saints open the regular season Sunday against the Washington Redskins.

If the ruling stands, Smith might play Sunday against the Redskins.

According to the person familiar with the case, the appeals panel reinstated the players but found that the NFL can revisit the issue and re-impose discipline on the players if it finds that they participated in a program designed to injure opponents.

The ruling was made by a three-person appeals panel set up by the sport’s collective bargaining agreement. The panel overturned an earlier ruling by Stephen Burbank, the sport’s system arbitrator.

The union had maintained in a case to Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor, that Burbank, not NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, had the authority to discipline the players because the alleged violations were related to the salary cap. The collective bargaining agreement gives Burbank the sole authority to resolve disputes between the league and union arising from the salary cap.

“It was purely a jurisdictional argument, not one based on the facts of the case,” the person with knowledge of Friday’s ruling said.

Burbank rejected the union’s appeal, ruling that Goodell had the authority to suspend the players for conduct detrimental to the sport.

But the appeals panel, the person familiar with the ruling said, went in a different direction and found that everything it had seen pointed to the league’s suspensions of the players being based on salary cap issues. The panel ruled that is not valid, the person said.

It was not immediately clear, the person said, whether the league would attempt to impose suspensions on the players again before Sunday.

The players had denied the allegations against them and also had challenged the suspensions in court.

Vilma wrote Friday on Twitter that “victory is mine.”

The ruling by the appeals panel does not affect the suspensions given by the league to Saints Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, assistant coach Joe Vitt and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

The league issued a statement saying the players will be eligible to play until Goodell makes a decision about whether to re-impose disciplinary measures.

The NFL’s statement said: “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. Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend.”

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