“Victory Is Mine!!!!” Jonathan Vilma, suspended Saints player, in a tweet on Friday after the decision to allow the players to rejoin the team and possibly play this weekend
After seven months, the New Orleans Saints finally got some relief Friday in their battle with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell over the bounty scheme he said Saints players ran from 2009-11.
Saints defensive end Will Smith and middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma are eligible to play in Sunday’s season opener after a three-person appeals panel overturned their suspension for their role in the bounty scandal.
Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season by Goodell and Smith was banned for four games after Goodell said a three-year investigation showed Saints players and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams participated in a system that paid out bonuses for hits that injured opposing players.
Two former Saints — defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, who was released by the Green Bay Packers last month, and linebacker Scott Fujita, who is now with the Cleveland Browns — were also suspended for eight and three games, respectively.
They also had their suspensions overturned by a Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) panel.
The panel, in a four-page summary decision, unanimously voted to send the case back to Goodell for a redetermination because they said it was unclear if the suspensions fall under his jurisdiction, according to the CBA.
The panel consisted of retired federal Judge Fern Smith, of San Francisco, retired federal Judge Richard Howell, of New York, and Georgetown professor James Oldham.
So while their decision allows the players to rejoin their teams now and possibly play this weekend, it didn’t permanently void the unprecedented penalties handed down by Goodell.
Still, the players saw it as a win — their first since the NFL revealed its investigation into the pay-for-performance scheme March 2. At the time, Goodell said that “this type of conduct will not be tolerated.”
Vilma tweeted after the decision, “Victory Is Mine!!!!”
Smith also took to Twitter to share the news of the decision: “Thank you to everyone involved in the process of this solution. And everyone who supported us through this whole ordeal.”
As a result of the ruling, the NFL released a statement saying the four players are eligible to play this weekend.
“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 email. “Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend.”
However, Aiello warned that even though the players are eligible to play immediately, the case isn’t over.
While the panel did not address the merits of the NFL’s bounty investigation, it said Goodell overstepped his authority in hearing the players’ appeals of their punishment for their roles in the Saints bounty program.
The panel’s decision stated that Special Master Stephen Burbank, not Goodell, should discipline players for receiving money from a pool that paid for big plays.
Goodell’s role, the panel said, should be limited to whether he can prove the players intended to injure opponents, which would fall in the category of conduct detrimental to the game.
Players and coaches implicated in the bounty pool have testified under oath in a related federal court case they never intended to injure opposing players.
“Whether the commissioner tries to readdress the situation or not is his call,” said Peter Ginsberg, Vilma’s attorney. “We are certainly hoping the appeals board has made it clear the commissioner tried to grab jurisdiction and impose penalties over an area he does not have oversight. ... The factual record in the court makes it clear he has acted in a biased and inappropriate manner.”
There was no immediate comment from Saints officials. The team opens the regular season Sunday against the Washington Redskins in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
Interim coach Aaron Kromer said Thursday that Smith, a nine-year veteran, could probably get back up to speed in a day because he was with the team during training camp and played in the preseason.
The Saints wrapped up a week of preps for the Redskins on Friday, shortly before the decision was released. They’ll have a light walkthrough practice Saturday morning where Smith could get caught up.
“Will knows our defense, and I’m sure there is nothing radical in our defense that’s different from normal,” Kromer said Friday before the decision came down.
“I know the importance of practice, but someone of Will Smith’s status and experience, I think he could handle coming in, realizing what the (game) plan was, and be able to play well.”
Vilma, however, is another story.
The nine-year veteran has had three surgical procedures on his knee since last November and didn’t participate in the team’s offseason program before his suspension kicked in when training camp started in late July.
Because Vilma was banned for the season, he was not allowed to use the Saints training facility in Metairie to get treatment from trainers and team doctors, and it’s not clear when he’ll be able to return to the field.
The decision by the appeals panel does not affect the suspensions of head coach Sean Payton, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, General Manager Mickey Loomis or assistant head coach/linebackers coach Joe Vitt because they don’t fall under the CBA.
Williams, who was identified by the NFL as having administered the bounty pool, has been suspended indefinitely. He left the team to take a job with the St. Louis Rams before news of the bounty scandal broke in March.
Payton received a season-long suspension from Goodell, while Loomis and Vitt were banned for eight and six games, respectively.
The bans for Loomis and Vitt began on Monday.
Saints players had recently finished practice when they received word of the panel’s ruling.
“It’s huge,” said free safety Malcolm Jenkins, a defensive captain. “Those are two huge leaders we’ve got. They’re great players. We’ve got a talented team, but you add Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, our talent level goes up that much. For our team, it’s a break.”
The Associated Press
contributed to this report.