An arbitration panel dismissed the National Football League’s suspensions of four players who were involved with the New Orleans Saints’ bounty pool case and left the door open for further disciplinary action.
The season-long suspension of linebacker Jonathan Vilma was overturned, along with shorter bans for Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith.
The panel determined that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell lacked the authority to impose discipline for unauthorized compensation, or money that might have been paid under the bounty plan. He is allowed to punish players for intent to injure opponents, the arbitrators said in a four-page opinion.
“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,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail. “Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend.”
Saints spokesman Greg Bensel didn’t immediately return telephone or e-mail messages seeking comment.
The panel’s summary decision said Goodell has the power to discipline the players, but that it was uncertain whether the discipline handed down was attributable in any part to violations that should have been within the jurisdiction of the arbitrator.
Goodell’s decision on whether to impose further penalties will be made “as expeditiously as possible,” Aiello said in an e-mail.
“It’s not clear from the record before us whether the commissioner had the distinction we draw in mind at the time he disciplined the players,” the panel said. “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.”
In May, Goodell suspended Vilma without pay for the 2012 season, in which he was due to make $1.6 million. Hargrove, a free-agent defensive lineman, was suspended for eight games; Smith, a defensive end, for four games; and Fujita, a linebacker now with the Cleveland Browns, for three games.
Yesterday’s decision doesn’t affect suspensions handed down against Saints coaches, including head coach Sean Payton and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, or General Manager Mickey Loomis.
About two dozen players participated in the bounty system, according to the league. Vilma, an eight-year veteran and 2004 first-round draft pick of the New York Jets, was one of four players punished for their alleged participation.
“The investigation concluded that while a captain of the defensive unit Vilma assisted Coach Williams in establishing and funding the program,” the NFL said at the time of the suspensions. “Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty -- $10,000 in cash -- to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week.”
The Saints defensive captain, Vilma has denied receiving or paying a bounty for the deliberate hurting of another team’s player.
“Victory is mine!!!!,” Vilma said yesterday on his Twitter account.
The arbitration panel consisted of Fern Smith, a San Francisco judge; Richard Howell, a retired federal judge from New York; and Georgetown University professor James Oldham, according to the Associated Press.
The NFL Players Association sued the NFL in July to overturn the suspensions. The union said there was no bounty program and that Goodell -- who issued the suspensions and later rejected the players’ appeals -- was biased against them.
“The investigation and arbitration process that the commissioner’s public-relations machinery touted as ‘thorough and fair’ has, in reality, been a sham,” the association said at the time.
New Orleans opens its season tomorrow against the Washington Redskins.