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Panel Overturns Players’ Bounty Suspensions

Jonathan Vilma has reason to smile.

In a reversal of gigantic proportions, the much-talked-about suspensions of four players allegedly involved in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal have been reversed, according to ESPN NFL insider Adam Schefter.

The reverberations of the decision by a three-man arbitration panel shook the league at the start of its first weekend of the new season. The ruling clears Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith and Anthony Hargrove to play in games on Sunday.

Suspended coaches Sean Payton (season), Gregg Williams (indefinitely) and Joe Vitt (eight games) are not affected by the surprising decision.

“Victory is mine!!!! -stewie griffin,” Vilma tweeted Friday afternoon. Vilma, the Saints’ highly respected linebacker, has been the most ardent attacker of the suspensions, even suing NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, questioning his power as “judge and jury.”

An NFL investigation found the New Orleans Saints operated a bounty system rewarding between 22 and 27 players for hard hits and injuring opposing player. The players have maintained such a program did not exist in the face of evidence the league produced to support its case.

The NFL Players Association and the four players had claimed in consolidated lawsuits that Goodell abused his authority and followed improper procedures in disciplining the players for a program that, according to NFL investigators, paid improper cash bonuses for tackles that injured opponents.

The lawsuits sought to have the punishment handed down by Goodell thrown out. The arbitration ruling renders the lawsuits moot at this point.

A team source previously told ESPN’s Ed Werder that Vilma planned to attend Sunday’s season opener against the Washington Redskins but believed he was at least a week or two from being ready to play because of a knee injury.

The win is a major triumph for the players and a major defeat for Goodell and the league. For sure, this is not over. For right now, the players can rejoice.

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