The NFL made headlines on Friday when they announced that a panel had overturned the suspensions of New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive end Will Smith, free-agent defensive end Anthony Hargrove and former Saint and now Cleveland Brown linebacker Scott Fujita. The four players were officially eligible to play in the season opener on Sunday.
In a case where the NFL was clearly trying to send a clear message that they were taking the “Bountygate” scandal seriously and dealing with those involved very quickly and decisively, the panel’s ruling definitely dealt the NFL a serious blow.
Hargrove, who had been released by the Green Bay Packers two weeks ago, is eligible to play if he is signed by another team. Vilma made headlines over the summer when he sued the NFL on the grounds that his suspension was unreasonable and sued commissioner Roger Goddell in a separate case for defamation of character.
Those four players are not entirely off the hook just yet. The panel’s ruling simply means that the suspensions were unwarranted based on the league’s current rules. Goddell can still suspend or fine the players if he and the league can prove that there was a clear intent to injure opposing quarterbacks, but this still sends the message that may have ramifications throughout all of professional sports.
The power still lies with the players. In a league where players like Nick Fairley (arrested twice during the offseason), who was active for the Lions’ season opener on Sunday, can violate the law and still play football, there is a clear inconsistency in the punishment of “star” players as opposed to those who have not yet established themselves.
The four players who were suspended were all veteran players, and while Goddell was trying to send a message about player conduct, they may very well have hit the peak of their careers. Fairley is a second year player who has arguably the highest potential next to Ndamakong Suh at his position. Fairley’s success moving forward is good for the league. To put it simply, he brings money to the owners who pay Goddell’s salary.
It would not surprise me to see these four players put back under the microscope before this season is over. Goddell still has the power to fine or suspend them, but the effect will not be nearly as significant as the initial suspensions were meant to show. The players and the union won a significant victory Friday afternoon, and that will have a major ripple effect on all of professional sports going forward.