Former New Orleans linebacker Scott Fujita is one of four players who had… (Win McNamee / Getty Images )
Their season hasn't even started, and already the New Orleans Saints have notched a significant victory.
The suspensions of four players involved in the alleged pay-to-injure bounty program were lifted Friday by a three-member arbitration panel, meaning the banned players — linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive lineman Will Smith, linebacker Scott Fujita (who now plays for Cleveland), and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (cut by Green Bay last month) — are eligible to return.
The ruling did not lift the suspensions of the coaches, so Saints Coach Sean Payton is still out for the year, linebackers coach Joe Vitt will sit out the first six games, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is still banned indefinitely.
Some in the league are interpreting the ruling this way: The arbitration panel didn't question that there was a pay-to-injure bounty program or that players could be suspended for participating in one. But the panel wants to clarify what the suspensions were for — that players were getting cash to hurt opponents, or that they circumvented the salary cap by collecting money that wasn't reported?
The panel wants to know because those are separate infractions, and different people are authorized to handle the discipline associated with those transgressions.
If it's an issue related to conduct detrimental to the league — a bounty program — Commissioner Roger Goodell has the authority to hand down punishments. If it's an issue of undisclosed compensation, that falls to arbitrator Stephen B. Burbank, the "special master" agreed upon by the owners and players in the collective bargaining agreement.
The panel said it wasn't sure whether any part of the commissioner's discipline was for salary-cap violations, and therefore it lifted the suspensions and told the commissioner to make "an expeditious re-determination" of discipline for conduct detrimental to the league.
Until Goodell does that, the players are eligible to play.
The NFL issued a statement: "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, who had been suspended for the season, put it more succinctly, tweeting in part: "Victory is mine!!!"
Smith, who had been suspended for four games, tweeted: "Thank you to everyone involved in the process of this solution. And everyone who supported us through this whole ordeal."
The Saints host to the Washington Redskins on Sunday, but Vilma is unlikely to play because he is recuperating from a knee injury sustained last season. However, the ruling could be a financial windfall for the players because it means they will be on the roster for the opening game of the season, typically a stipulation in player contracts.
The league will likely present a clarified suspension plan to the panel within a few weeks.