Four players who were suspended for their connection to the New Orleans Saints' bounty scandal have had their bans overturned by an arbitration panel, the National Football League (NFL) said on Friday.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was initially suspended for the entire 2012 regular season, free agent Anthony Hargrove for eight games, Saints defensive end Will Smith for four games and Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita three games.
The four were punished in May when the NFL identified them as having leadership roles in a program where players were given cash rewards for knocking opponents out of games from 2009-2011.
But the bans were overturned by a collective bargaining agreement appeals panel ahead of the NFL's season-opening weekend.
Despite the panel's decision, which does not lift the bans given to coaches Gregg Williams, Sean Payton and Joe Vitt, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell can put the suspensions back in place if he proves there was an intent to injure.
"Consistent with the panel's decision, (NFL) Commissioner Goodell will, as directed, make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed for violating the league's pay-for-performance/bounty rule," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in a statement.
"Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Julian Linden)