Suspensions for players wrapped up in the Saints' Bounty scandal have been vacated by a ruling of three judges as part of the league's discipline and the players union's appeal.
LB Jonathan Vilma, DE Will Smith, LB Scott Fujita and DT Anthony Hargrove are, for now, eligible to play this Sunday. The Saints received a temporary roster exemption for both Vilma and Smith to stay on the roster, and while Smith is expected to start against Washington on Sunday, Vilma is not because of his knee injury.
The panel did not rule on the merits of the league's investigation, but rather, on Goodell's power as commissioner to enforce the discipline. In the end, the panel ruled that Goodell did not have power to punish players as part of a what was essentially a salary cap violation. Goodell was found to have characterized the bounty scheme as pay-for-performance. Goodell does have the power to discipline "conduct detrimental" to the league, the justification he will likely use to re-apply the suspensions soon.
The league immediately reinstated the players after the ruling. The mixed ruling - with victories claimed by both sides - will likely push the two sides back to settlement talks. The judge in the player's lawsuits against Goodell are still pending a decision.
The suspensions were vacated and the matter was turned back to Goodell. In reality, the commissioner could have used a different justification to immediately re-apply the suspensions exactly as first applied. He may do that in the coming weeks if a settlement isn't reached between the league and the union.
The ruling has no impact on the Saints' two suspended coaches and GM Mickey Loomis, because they are not represented by the union.
Saints starting RDE Will Smith has the biggest football impact of the decision, as he is now expected to start against the Redskins in the Saints' regular season opener. Vilma is not expected to play because of his knee injury, and may end up on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list for the first six games of the season. Fujita, now with Cleveland, will not play Sunday after not practicing all week. Hargrove is a free agent but may have better prospects signing with a new team now.