Panel vacates bounty suspensions for 4 NFL players

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In a memo sent to all 32 NFL teams after the ruling and obtained by AP, NFL legal counsel Jeff Pash emphasized that “nothing in today’s decision contradicts any of the facts found in the investigation into this matter, or absolves any player of responsibility for conduct detrimental. Nor does the decision in any way suggest what discipline would be appropriate for conduct that lies within the authority of the Commissioner.”

The league’s investigation found that Saints coaches and players, led by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, ran a program from 2009-11 that offered cash payouts for hits that injured opponents. It said specific bounties were placed on quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009-10 playoffs.

The Saints open their season at home against Washington on Sunday, while the Browns host Philadelphia.

The NFL granted roster exemptions to the Saints for both of their suspended players and to the Browns for Fujita, meaning New Orleans could carry up to 55 players and Cleveland 54.

Earlier this week, Saints interim head coach Aaron Kromer said Smith, who participated in training camp and the preseason before he began serving his four-game suspension on Monday, would be ready to play against Washington if available.

Vilma’s status was not as clear. His season-long suspension began before training camp and he has been trying to work his way back from offseason surgery on his left knee.

Saints players had just finished practice when they received word of the panel’s ruling.

“It’s huge,” said Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins, a defensive captain. “Those are two huge leaders we’ve got. They’re great players. We’ve got a talented team, but you add Will Smith and Jonathan Vilma, our talent level goes up that much. For our team, it’s a break.”

Even if Vilma could not play right away, Jenkins said his presence in the locker room and meetings would be valuable.

At Browns headquarters, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was sure the 33-year-old Fujita would be able to come back and have an immediate impact.

“I’m confident Scott has been keeping his conditioning up and he knows the system,” Jackson said.

“He’s got what 12 years in? He’ll be fine. If he’s able to come back there will be a lot of excitement in this locker room.”

Fujita was barred from Cleveland’s training facility this week, but he stayed in town and worked out on his own at nearby Baldwin Wallace University in the event the suspension was lifted. Fujita, who serves on the NFLPA’s executive committee, had expressed confidence he would be on the field in Week 1.

Hargrove, docked eight games, was released last month by Green Bay and is not currently with a team.

The appeals panel consisted of retired federal Judge Fern Smith of San Francisco, retired federal Judge Richard Howell of New York, and Georgetown professor James Oldham. It met in New York last week to hear arguments from the NFL Players Association, which appealed Burbank’s ruling that Goodell had the authority to hear and rule on the players’ appeals of their suspensions. NFL attorneys had asked the panel to affirm Burbank’s ruling, but the panel sided in large part with the union.

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