We and others have been saying for a while that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been walking a thin wire with his suspensions of current New Orleans Saints players Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith, and former Saints players Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita. In the absence of any publicly presented evidence that Vilma and other Saints players put money in a pool to injure opposing players in game, or participated in that process, Goodell kept hammering the same point home — that the bounty concept was repugnant and damaging to the league, and that it must be stopped at once.
Nobody's arguing against that idea, but Goodell has found fewer people on his side than he may have expected. People would like to see that specific evidence against the players, especially given the severity of the penalties; Vilma was suspended for a full season, Hargrove eight games, Smith four games, and Fujita three games. Given the NFL's indication that as many as 27 current or former Saints players were involved in various "pay-for-performance" scandals, there are many who wonder why it was that those four players were targeted by the league. Among those wondering just what Goodell was thinking was Vilma, who filed a defamation suit against Goodell personally in response.
According to ESPN, the NFL has offered Vilma a reduction on his suspension from a full season (including any playoff games) to eight games, on the condition that Vilma drops his suit. Per the report, the offer was made last week, as the two sides headed to a Friday appearance in U.S. District Court in front of Judge Ginger Berrigan.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello released this statement on Monday morning: "Today's report about a settlement offer by the league to Jonathan Vilma is completely inaccurate. No such settlement offer has been made. We will continue to respect the court proceedings on this matter, and have no further comment at this time."
In the first appearance before Judge Berrigan on July 26, when asked to consider a temporary restraining order against the league, the judge expressed concern regarding Goodell's methods of selective prosecution.
In that first hearing, seven members of the Saints organization testified that they never saw nor heard Vilma doing what he was alleged to do, which was offer up as much as $10,000 to the teammate who took quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre out of two different 2010 playoff games. All who testified denied that there was ever a pay-to-injure program in general.
The ESPN report indicated that others in the league have urged Goodell to reduce the suspensions (perhaps further indicating the flimsiness of Goodell's claims against the players in question), while Goodell has insisted that if the players had participated fully in the appeal process and capitulated in front of him for what they allegedly did, their suspensions may have already been reduced.
That's all well and good, but there's one thing Goodell doesn't have -- or won't present -- and that's specific proof Vilma, or any other player, went out of his way to injure, or pay others to injure, opposing players. Those higher up in the Saints organization have not protested their suspensions (including head coach Sean Payton, general manager Mickey Loomis and interim head coach Joe Vitt), which may lead many to believe that there was a general culture of bountyism in the facility. But most people tie that to former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who was suspended indefinitely by Goodell after taking a job with the St. Louis Rams.
There's no indication yet that Vilma will take the deal, but Goodell had better hope that Vilma does. If he does not, and the case goes to court, the discovery process could force the NFL to open its books and prove that there is any specific and damning evidence against Vilma and his cohorts. And if there is none, and Goodell is shown to be the kind of commissioner prone to egregious and selective prosecution in the absence of actual evidence, it will be his reputation, and not Vilma's, that will be damaged forever.