defamation lawsuit he filed against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday. But whatever the outcome, the suspended New Orleans Saints linebacker's political capital among his peers is the equivalent of a blank check.Jonathan Vilma may not see a penny from the
By taking on the powerful chief executive derisively known as "God-dell" to some NFL players, Vilma not only issued a challenge to the commissioner to produce some concrete evidence against the four players disciplined in the Saints' bounty case, but he also took a symbolic shot at Goodell's omnipotence.
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As viewed in NFL circles, a 30-year-old linebacker with creaky knees and little to lose just served God – and a lot of players are celebrating as though Ronnie Lott had just smacked Ickey Woods into last Tuesday.
"What a badass," an offensive player for an NFC team said of Vilma on Thursday afternoon. "He's the man. I think it's nuts, but I love it. He's going after Goodell. He should, too."
A defensive player for an AFC team expressed a similar sentiment, saying, "It's aggressive, and I love it. I'm excited to see what happens. I love the sound of 'Vilma v. Goodell.' This is gonna cement Vilma's name forever."
That neither of the aforementioned players wanted his name cited in this column is not surprising – lawsuit or not, Goodell is still the league's most potent powerbroker and the most powerful commissioner in American professional sports, and no active player wants to risk ending up on the commish's list.
Vilma, however, is in a different category. Staring at a yearlong suspension that could turn out to be career-ending, and publicly adamant that he never paid a teammate to injure an opponent, Vilma extended the battlefront beyond Goodell's fiefdom and into U.S. District Court in New Orleans.
The move is not without risk. In addition to a great deal of money, the suit could cost Vilma further damage to his reputation, and possibly expose him to criminal liability. He'll be forced to answer questions under oath, as will many of his current and former teammates and coaches. If concrete evidence surfaces that Vilma did, in fact, serve as the ringleader of a pay-for-injure operation, he will likely regret that he filed the suit.
If, however, the evidence – or lack thereof – supports Vilma's contention that he is innocent of the charges for which he was punished, Goodell may wish Vilma had simply pile-driven him into the stadium turf.
"If the ruling is favorable [to Vilma] in any way, it's going to open the floodgates," the AFC player said. "If he prevails, man, that would be sweet."
Said the NFC player: "If Vilma wins? Oh, then he's God. They should just put him as commissioner if that happens."
As I stated earlier this month, I believe the league has yet to show sufficient evidence that Vilma, teammate Will Smith and ex-Saints defenders Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove engaged in such a scheme. If Vilma's suit helps compel Goodell to lay those cards on the table, I'm not opposed.
Given that New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle questioned whether such evidence exists – and numerous sources on the Saints' side of the investigation expressed similar beliefs to me – it's fair to say that Vilma is leading what amounts to an organizational rebellion against the penalties.
Whether he can actually achieve legal satisfaction is another story. The standard of proving defamation against a public figure such as Vilma is relatively stringent, requiring the plaintiff to demonstrate "actual malice" – that intentionally untruthful statements were made, or those which demonstrated reckless disregard for the truth.
The wording in Vilma's lawsuit also suggests that there may be a grey area that could cloud a jury's analysis of the case. When the NFL announced its suspensions of the four players, it stated that Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who could knock Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner out of a 2009 playoff game in New Orleans and made a similar offer regarding Vikings QB Brett Favre before the Saints' NFC championship game victory the following week.
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In his complaint, Vilma contends that he "never paid, or intended to pay" $10,000 (or any amount of money) to any teammate who could KO Warner or Favre in those games – or knock anyone else out of any game.
Will Vilma, based on that wording, argue that though he may have made such statements to teammates, they were not meant to be taken literally, nor did his teammates regard his statements as literal?
If so, he may be thrown for a figurative loss by the jury.
It's also quite possible Goodell will argue that the case should be dismissed because the collective bargaining agreement between the players and the league takes precedence over the litigation process. If the commissioner is successful, Vilma's only recourse may be to file a grievance under the CBA, and Goodell's relatively broad authority will remain unscathed.
It is Goodell's authority which lies at the heart of this dispute. During last year's lockout, the commissioner took a beating – from the fans who booed him on draft day and, more significant, from numerous players who resented what they perceived as his largely unchecked reign.
As the two sides battled over how to divide up billions of dollars, there were some hardliners among the NFL Players Association's executive committee who felt strongly that a new agreement should eliminate Goodell's jurisdiction over appeals of off-the-field disciplinary rulings issued by the commissioner.
Yet as the final stages of negotiations played out last summer, with a push on both sides to complete the 10-year deal in time to salvage training camps and the preseason, league negotiators made it clear to NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith and others on his bargaining team that Goodell would dig in on that issue. Pushing the commissioner to surrender control over appeals, in theory, could have blown up the deal and imperiled the season. In the end, the players caved.
Vilma, in essence, is challenging that power by trying to drag Goodell into court. Though the NFLPA is not nominally involved in the lawsuit, the union did initiate its own challenge to the commissioner two weeks ago, filing a pair of grievances on behalf of the suspended players.
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The first grievance contends that Goodell lacks the authority to discipline players for conduct that occurred before Aug. 4, 2011, the day the current CBA was finalized. The second argues that the bounty allegations fall under the realm of on-the-field conduct, which would take the appeal out of Goodell's hands and let the matter be decided by Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, who are jointly appointed by the NFL and NFLPA. The union also argued that the allegations of payments being made that fall outside the players' contracts should be under the jurisdiction of Special Master Stephen Burbank, rather than Goodell.
A hearing for those grievances occurred Wednesday at NFL headquarters in New York and lasted 2 ½ hours, with arbitrator Shyam Das presiding. Das has not yet issued a decision, and Goodell undoubtedly will bristle if the arbitrator rules in a manner that curtails the commissioner's authority.
Privately, however, it's possible the commissioner would exhale gratefully and cheer such an outcome. That way, he can be perceived as having come down hard on the four men in the name of player safety while having the ultimate decision taken out of his hands. If the league's evidence is as shaky as Vilma and others claim it is, Goodell would no longer be pressured to produce it – and if the players' suspensions are significantly shortened or eliminated, the noise would subside, and the whole dispute would eventually go away.
Under such a scenario, Vilma's defamation suit would stand as Goodell's lone remaining complication. Should such a hypothetical state of affairs occur, I'd offer the most powerful commissioner in sports a word of advice – literally, a single word.
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