Four player suspensions tied to the New Orleans Saints bounty scandals have been put on hold by an appeals panel. It ruled that Commissioner Roger Goodell might have lacked the authority to suspend the players under the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFL Players Association.

As we previously discussed on this sports law blog, defense players for the New Orleans Saints and several other NFL teams were paid as much as $1,500 to knock opposing players out of the game. The resulting investigation resulted in the suspension of NFL players Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, Will Smith, and Anthony Hargrove. Saints head coach Sean Payton was also suspended for the entire upcoming season.

The decision on the player suspension turned on what part of the CBA Goodell relied upon when issuing the suspensions. Goodell contended that the bounty program was an issue of conduct detrimental to the league, which would fall under his exclusive jurisdiction. However, the NFLPA maintained that the players’ conduct violated provisions of the CBA related to undisclosed compensation agreements (essentially salary cap violations), which must be addressed by an arbitrator.

In its decision, the panel concluded that the conduct associated with the bounty program ran afoul of both provisions of the CBA. Because the panel was unsure whether the discipline imposed by Goodell was attributable the compensation violations and, therefore, within the jurisdiction of the arbitrator, it vacated the suspensions. It further ordered than any re-imposed penalties be adjusted accordingly.

While the decision to set aside the suspensions represents a setback for Commission Goodell, the four suspended players are not out of the woods yet. Goodell could still impose the same punishment under his authority to discipline players for conduct detrimental to the league. In addition, the decision does not impact the disciplinary sanctions imposed on New Orleans coach Sean Payton, interim coach Joe Vitt, or general manager Mickey Loomis because they do not work under the CBA.

It will be interesting to see how the decision impacts the new punishments. Many observers suspect that the NFL and the NFLPA may now be able to reach a compromise in an effort to close the door on the scandal.