When the NFL put either a settlement offer or a settlement discussion (depending on who you believe) across the table to Jonathan Vilma earlier this week, it was the first sign of real weakness in the league's case against Vilma and the three other suspended players in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal. The timing of those settlement discussions was not an accident. The NFL seemed to want to get something hammered out to avoid what happened on Friday morning in New Orleans.
That's when U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan heard arguments from Vilma's side and the NFL's in the league's motion to have Vilma's defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner dismissed. Any appeal of the lawsuit, which also seeks to have Vilma's season-long suspension overturned, would open several cans of legal worms for the NFL, and put the suspension process on trial in front of an outside authority for the first time.
From the start, Judge Berrigan sided with Vilma and noted that the steps taken by the NFL when gathering, processing and using its information to mete out justice were specious at best. When Peter Ginsberg, Vilma's attorney, said that Vilma was suspended for cart-off hits, and there was no specific proof of Vilma's involvement, Judge Berrigan responded thusly: "I would like to rule in Vilma's favor. I do think you [Vilma] exhausted your remedies."
Ginsberg and NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey Kessler (who represented suspended players Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove) argued against the NFL's claim that Goodell was eager to hear from the players in an appeal process that had them going straight back to the commissioner. In effect, they said, the players could have lost any jurisdictional rights to further appeals processes. Eventually, the players took their case to longtime league arbiter Stephen Burbank, who is still weighing testimony from the hearing that was the step after the Goodell appeal process.
However, from all accounts, Berrigan made it clear that she thought Goodell acted beyond his authority. At one point, according to legal expert Gabe Feldman (whose Twitter timeline was particularly informative during the hearing), she said that she believed the process was unfair, the punishment excessive and that Goodell did not have power to discipline in these cases.
Judge Berrigan then dropped the hammer: "If I can find a way to legally do it, I will rule in Vilma's favor."
To the matter of the injunctive relief Vilma seeks in the suit, Judge Berrigan said that she believed Vilma had suffered the irreparable harm needed for such relief to be given. That was a major blow to the NFL's case. The concept of "irreparable harm" goes a long way in a court of law, and it's very tough to put that genie back in the bottle.
However, Judge Berrigan also said that she will weigh whether she has the jurisdiction to rule on anything before the Burbank ruling is made. Kessler argued strenuously that she did have that authority, at one point suggesting that the judge "was not a potted plant," which I'm sure she appreciated.
When the NFL had its time before Judge Berrigan, attorney Gregg Levy argued that Goodell was well within his rights per the collective bargaining agreement, and that she would have to defer to Burbank and Goodell before making a ruling of her own. Levy also said that the CBA required Goodell to declare the guilt of a player before the appeal process begins. Judge Berrigan stuck a fork in that argument, saying that she believed the players exhausted their appeal options before Goodell . She also brought up the potential loss of jurisdictional power.
Levy then went to Goodell's old line -- that the CBA pre-empted any judge's ruling, and that the whole point of the CBA was to keep the NFL out of court. Judge Berrigan asked Levy if the "conduct detrimental" ruling made in the suspensions overrode any other CBA provisions. When Levy told her that it wasn't her decision to make, Judge Berrigan responded by saying, "You're making me feel powerless."
Again, not a very good idea. Kessler and Ginsberg closed by bringing up the fact that no specific evidence against the players has ever been made public, and Ginsberg pleaded for a quick decision in the name of fairness to his client.
While Judge Berrigan did say that she came to some preliminary conclusions, she also said that she would not rule at this time, brought the timing of the Burbank ruling up, and urged both parties to settle. Whether Vilma's side heard enough to tell the NFL what it could do with any settlement offer, and whether the NFL saw enough dings in its case to put a better offer on the table, is the next big thing in a case that could drag on into the NFL's regular season.
"The only thing better would have been a decision," Vilma said outside the courthouse. "I came here with no expectations. I'm glad she could see through some of the B.S. I'm cool with that until we get a decision. Patience is my best friend."