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Why Jonathan Vilma May Have a Case After All Against Roger Goodell, NFL

CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 07:  Jonathan Vilma #51 of the New Orleans Saints against the Carolina Panthers during their game at Bank of America Stadium on November 7, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Gary DavenportNFL AnalystDecember 13, 2016

The players suspended as a result of the "player bounty" scandal that has rocked the New Orleans Saints had their appeals heard by the National Football League earlier this week.

For one player, at least, that appeals process to redress his grievances isn't enough, and not only has linebacker Jonathan Vilma taken the unprecedented step of filing a defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but the suit may just have some merit.

FOX Sports reports that the lawsuit, filed Thursday in United States District Court, claims that Goodell ''relied on, at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies'' while commenting on Vilma's involvement in an alleged program that provided financial incentives for injuring players, and that ''by making these false and public statements, Goodell has significantly harmed Jonathan's reputation and ability to make a living."

The NFL's cadre of attorneys (and I'm sure they are legion) will no doubt dismiss Vilma's assertions as baseless. Or they could assert that the power granted to Goodell by the collectively bargained Personal Conduct Policy, which gives Goodell final say on player discipline and allows no right of appeal or review of his decisions, left him well within his rights to do and say what he did where Vilma was concerned.

The fact that the NFLPA ever let that get included in the CBA is example no. 11,327,412 as to why the NFL's union is a joke, but that's an article for another day.

However, Michael McCann of Sports Illustrated doesn't necessarily believe that the NFL will be able to quickly and quietly sweep the latest fallout from "Bountygate" under the rug, and he reports that there are elements of Vilma's suit that would appear to have legal merit:

On the surface, the suspended Saints linebacker's defamation claim has merit. Goodell made statements to third parties which ascribe alleged facts about Vilma, and those alleged facts likely harm Vilma's reputation. Most damaging, in a report distributed to the 32 NFL teams, Goodell alleged that "prior to a Saints playoff game in January, 2010, defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked [opposing quarterback Brett] Favre out of the game."

While it is impossible to know the exact damage to Vilma's NFL career, especially since the statement does not bear on Vilma's ability to perform as an NFL player, teams probably view him as a less desirable potential employee because of it. Also, unlike many defamation lawsuits that center on statements ultimately deemed non-actionable opinion, Goodell's statement is specific and objectively worded. These elements work in Vilma's favor.

There would seem to be an easy way for Goodell to not only address Vilma's claims but also respond to any number of calls from the suspended coaches, players and the media to see exactly why the punishments that were handed down were so severe in some cases.

Make the evidence against Vilma and the other parties that have been punished in the scandal public. Put the proverbial cards on the table. However, McCann posits that there are a number of potential reasons why Goodell and the National Football League have been so reluctant to slam exhibit A on the table, including the possibility that the league's evidence isn't nearly as damning as they have made it out to be:

Through the discovery process, it would likely have to disclose information it does not want to reveal. For instance, the league may have to divulge it's sources of information, including the identities of players and coaches who were informants. The backlash of such disclosures could be considerable. Moreover, much like the Mitchell Report has been criticized for relying on disreputable persons, expect similar critiques if the same proves true of the NFL's Bounty Report.

If Vilma's lawsuit moves forward, the league may be left with little recourse but to divulge this information, which could be the best thing to come out of it, as finally seeing the meat of the league's case against Vilma and the others might finally put to rest the endless speculation as to whether the punishments were too severe or lenient.

With that said, not only does Jonathan Vilma's defamation lawsuit add yet another layer to the "player bounty" saga that has been one of the dominant storylines of the offseason, but it's also a direct challenge to the power of the NFL commissioner.

That challenge, and how it shakes out, could end up having an even bigger impact on the NFL in the long term than any other fallout from this scandal, as for the first time in a long time, the actions of a commissioner who acts with nearly unfettered impunity may be called into question in a court of law.

 

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