Keeping Score

Bountygate Suspensions Overturned: Really A Victory For NFL Players?

An appeals panel ruling vacated Roger Goodell's suspension of current or former New Orleans Saints players for their role in the "Bountygate" scandal. But he can hand them out again. Still, why this matters for the NFL and its players.

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Al Messerschmidt / Getty Images

Linebacker Jonathan Vilma #51 of the New Orleans Saints celebrates a play against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Oct. 16, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

Roger Goodell’s strict penalties for player misbehavior, and foul play on the field, haven’t made him the most popular guy among NFL players. So today’s legal victory for four players whom Goodell suspended for their role in the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate affair is particularly satisfying — no matter how fleeting and temporary it may be.

A three-member appeals panel overturned the season-long suspension for Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, the four-game penalty for Saints defensive end Will Smith, and a three-game suspension for Scott Fujita, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, for their roles in the Bountygate scandal. Former Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove had been suspended for eight games — he is still an unsigned free agent.

The panel essentially punted the decision back to Goodell, asking him for absolute clarity. It noted that under the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, Goodell does not have the authority to punish players for participating in an underground pay-for-performance program violating the league’s salary cap restrictions. An arbitrator has authority to hand down punishments for “undisclosed compensation agreements.” But the commissioner can punish players for “conduct detrimental” to the league. The panel’s message to Goodell: go back, give this a second thought, and make certain that these penalties are for detrimental conduct only. “While we could speculate, it is 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 wrote in the summary decision. The Saints’ bounty program, in which players were offered cash to take out opposing players, seems to fit the definition of detrimental conduct.

(MORE: Pay for Pain – Why the Bounty Scandal Looks Terrible For The NFL)

So the players won on a technicality, and Goodell could just reinstate the exact same penalties, either ending this fight for good, or sending the players right back into court. Still, Goodell won’t make any decision before this Sunday. “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 a statement. “Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend.

(The legal decision does not apply to the punishments handed down to Saints coaches and management, including the season-long suspension for head coach Sean Payton).

Returning to the field is a tangible, and emotional, win for the players. “Victory is mine!!!! – stewie griffin,” Vilma tweeted. Vilma is recovering from a serious knee injury, and likely won’t return immediately, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. But Smith will. According to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Fujita will play for the Browns.

“This is pretty significant,” says Gabe Feldman, director of the Sports Law program at the Tulane University School of Law. “Commissioners of sports leagues don’t often have suspensions overturned, even if it’s on a temporary basis. It’s unusual for the commissioner’s authority to be questioned in this manner.”

For those who think Goodell wields too much power, the decision is more than just unusual. It’s pretty darn sweet.

(MORE: Q&A – Michael Vick On His New Book, Player Safety, And His Time in Prison)