METAIRIE, La. – An appeals panel voided the suspensions of four players hit with penalties the NFL doled out for what it was conduct detrimental to the league, freeing up two of them to regain their roster spots with the New Orleans Saints.
But the panel didn’t clear the Saints or players of wrongdoing, questioning only whether Commissioner Roger Goodell’s penalties came fully under his ability to rule.
The ruling sends the decision back to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who will now attempt to make an expedited determination using the parameters set forth by the three-person panel.
The futures of Saints players Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith along with former New Orleans defenders Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove still hang in the balance.
“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.”
Meanwhile, the two players with current Saints’ ties took to Twitter to voice their pleasure in the decision.
Vilma, the most vocal of the four suspended players and the one who has a lawsuit against Goodell still pending, tweeted, “Victory is mine!!!”
Will Smith, meanwhile, tweeted his thanks to those who stuck with him through the process. “Thank you to everyone involved in the process of this solution.. And everyone who supported us through this whole ordeal,” Smith tweeted.
In the locker room, word of the ruling came down as players were finished with practice. Safety Malcolm Jenkins called the move unexpected.
“I think everybody was really waiting for this whole thing to sort itself out,” Jenkins said. “It’s definitely some good news. I think everybody will be happy to get those guys back around just to see their faces. We know they’re not going to jump in the lineup this week or anything, but just to have them guys around is big for us.”
Added linebacker Jonathan Casillas, “Will has been here since ’05 or something like that. That’s before Drew got here. He has been here for a long time. He’s like one of the founding fathers of this organization. We all look up to him. We all look up to Vilma. When they talk, everyone listens. It’s good to get those guys back in the locker room.”
The teams with players involved were granted a roster exemption for this weekend, bumping game-week numbers to 54 from 53. In the Saints’ case, they would have needed one more exemption.
But Jason LaCanfora of CBSports.com reported the team had cut fullback Korey Hall, getting the roster to 54.
In an opinion written on behalf of the unanimous panel by Richard Holwell, he said, “In light of the serious nature of the penalties imposed, we believe caution is appropriate. Therefore we vacate the players’ discipline and remand the matter directly to the commissioner for expeditious redetermination.”
The panel’s decision aided federal Judge Ginger Berrigan, who was set to submit an order Friday before it came out. After the decision, Berrigan said she was stepping aside while the redetermination was happening.
The NFL Players Association was happy with the judgment, but said it was ready to continue to fight on its members behalf.
“We are pleased that the appeals panel ruled unanimously to lift the players’ suspensions immediately. We will continue to vigorously protect the rights of all players,” the NFLPA said in a statement.
Friday’s decision by the panel doesn’t affect the suspensions of head coach Sean Payton, assistant head coach Joe Vitt or general manager Mickey Loomis.
The saga began on March 2 when the NFL disclosed what that it said was a three-year bounty program run by former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. Two months later, Goodell levied the suspensions on the four players, setting in motion the process that led to Friday’s panel ruling.