That leaves open the possibility of Goodell re-imposing disciplinary measures against the players after reconsidering the grounds for the original suspensions.
In the meantime, Smith and Vilma could play for the Saints in Sunday’s season opener against the Washington Redskins at the Superdome, barring further action by the league before then. Smith seems more likely to play than Vilma, who has been plagued by knee problems.
The NFL issued a statement that 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.”
Vilma wrote Friday on Twitter that “victory is mine.” But several people within the sport said they expected the league to re-impose discipline on the four players, possibly with slight modifications.
“You can bet the league is not giving up on this,” one person familiar with the case said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the topic.
In a memo sent by the league to each of the 32 NFL teams, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post, league attorney Jeff Pash wrote: “Nothing in [Friday’s] decision contradicts any of the facts found in the investigation into this matter, or absolves any player of responsibility for conduct detrimental.”
The players’ union originally brought its case to Stephen Burbank, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who is the sport’s system arbitrator, but Burbank had upheld the suspensions.
The union, in a written statement, said it was “pleased” with Friday’s ruling and “will continue to vigorously protect the rights of all players.”
The panel’s ruling does not affect the league’s suspensions of Saints Coach Sean Payton, General Manager Mickey Loomis, assistant coach Joe Vitt and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in the bounty case.
The NFL concluded after an investigation that Saints players received cash payments the previous three seasons for hits that injured opponents. The league suspended Vilma for the entire 2012 season for his role in the bounty scandal. Hargrove was suspended for eight games. Smith was given a four-game suspension, and Fujita received a three-game ban.
The players have denied the allegations against them. They also have challenged the suspensions in court.
The union maintained in its case to Burbank that Burbank, not Goodell, had the authority to discipline the players in the case because the collective bargaining agreement gives Burbank exclusive jurisdiction over salary cap issues. The bounty case involves salary cap violations because the players received payments not counted against the salary cap.
Burbank rejected the union’s appeal, ruling that Goodell had the authority to suspend the players for conduct detrimental to the sport.
The members of the appeals panel wrote in their ruling they agree that Goodell “had jurisdiction to discipline the Players in this case,” but they were uncertain what, if any, portions of the players’ suspensions were based on salary cap issues.
“In light of the serious nature of the penalties imposed, we believe caution is appropriate,” the appeals panel’s written ruling said. “Therefore we vacate the Players’ discipline and remand the matter directly to the Commissioner for expeditious redetermination. To the extent that any portion of the discipline previously imposed was ascribed to the undisclosed compensation aspects of the program, any re-imposed discipline should be adjusted accordingly.”
Redskins Coach Mike Shanahan said earlier Friday he thought the emotions of the bounty case would fuel the Saints players in the opener.
“You go through a tough situation and it’s a rallying cry for people, especially if they feel like they’ve been wronged in some way,” Shanahan said. “I think it just makes you focus more as a team.”