The suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players involved in an alleged pay-for-pain bounty program were lifted by a three-member arbitration panel, allowing the players to return to the game – for now. The arbitration decision allows the players to return to their teams, but it does not permanently void their suspensions.
An NFL investigation revealed that Saints coaches and players ran a bounty program from 2009 – 2011 in which players would receive cash payouts for hits that injured opponents. In the 2009-2010 playoffs, bounties were placed on quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre. Linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive lineman Will Smith, linebacker Scott Fujita, and defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove were all suspended after the conduct was discovered.
The panel stated that it remains to be determined what the players’ suspensions were for – that players were getting paid to hurt opponents or that they circumvented a salary cap by collecting unreported cash. If the issue is with the bounty program itself, then the Commissioner has the authority to deliver punishments. If it is an issue of undisclosed cash, the punishments must be determined by arbitrator Stephen B. Burbank as designated in the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. Until a determination is made as to the reason for the punishment, the players are eligible to play.
The panel did not review the suspensions leveled against coaching staff. Saints Head Coach Sean Payton is still out for the 2012-2013 season, assistant coach Joe Vitt will sit out the first six games of the season, and former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is banned indefinitely.