NEW ORLEANS — Jonathan Vilma, Scott Fujita, and Will Smith are back in the NFL. For now.
The suspensions of those players, plus unsigned free agent Anthony Hargrove, for their roles in the New Orleans Saints’ pay-for-pain bounty scandal were lifted Friday by a three-member appeals panel.
The league reinstated them a few minutes later.
The Saints’ Smith and Fujita, now with the Cleveland Browns, probably will play in Sunday’s season openers. Vilma can at least rejoin teammates and coaches in New Orleans — and get paid — even if the linebacker is not yet ready to play because of knee problems.
And Hargrove can start talking to NFL teams about giving him another shot, after he was cut by the Green Bay Packers.
Still, there’s no telling how long the reprieve will last.
Coming just two days before the first full slate of NFL games this season, the ruling is a setback for commissioner Roger Goodell and the league. But while the decision allows the players to rejoin their teams, it does not permanently void their suspensions.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said Goodell would ‘‘make an expedited determination of the discipline imposed’’ for violating the league’s bounty rule.
‘‘Until that determination is made, the four players are reinstated and eligible to play starting this weekend,’’ Aiello said.
The ruling does not affect New Orleans coach Sean Payton, suspended for the season, interim coach Joe Vitt (six games), or general manager Mickey Loomis (eight games).
While the panel did not address the merits of the NFL’s bounty investigation, it found that Goodell overstepped his authority in hearing the players’ appeals of their punishments for participating in the Saints’ bounty program, which paid cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents.
The panel’s decision states that Special Master Stephen Burbank, not Goodell, should discipline players for receiving money from a pool that paid for big plays. Goodell’s role, the panel said, should be limited to whether he can prove the players intended to injure opponents, which would fall in the category of conduct detrimental to the game. Players and coaches implicated in the bounty pool have testified under oath in a related federal court case they never intended to injure opposing players.
‘‘Whether the commissioner tries to readdress the situation or not is his call,’’ said Peter Ginsberg, Vilma’s attorney. ‘‘We are certainly hoping the appeals board has made it clear the commissioner tried to grab jurisdiction and impose penalties over an area he does not have oversight . . . The factual record in the court makes it clear he has acted in a biased and inappropriate manner.’’
The NFL filed court documents Friday indicating Vilma initially agreed to a new bounty hearing with Goodell last month before Vilma’s lawyers and the players union talked him out of it. The documents were filed in a federal court case that is separate from the ruling by the appeal panel.
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.
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 panel’s decision likely means that consolidated federal lawsuits brought against the NFL by Vilma and the NFLPA on behalf of the other three players are likely on hold until Goodell reissues punishment.
It also spared US District Judge Ginger Berrigan from having to decide before Sunday on a temporary restraining order requested by the players.