New Orleans Saints linebacker, Jonathan Vilma filed a defamation lawsuit last week against NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell claiming he made false statements, tarnished Vilma’s reputation and made it harder for him to find work within the NFL as well as after he retires.
You probably remember that the Saints were involved in a bounty scandal in which players were accused of offering money to teammates who were able to hit opposing players hard enough to send them out of the game with injuries. According to the league, the bounties were sanctioned by the coaching staff.
This past March, Goodell suspended then-defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, who administered the program, indefinitely. He also suspended head coach, Sean Payton for the entire 2012 season, general manager Mickey Loomis for eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt for six games. The team was also fined the league maximum $500,000 and had their second-round draft picks taken away for the next two years.
More player suspensions were handed down recently. Vilma’s was the harshest, as he was suspended for the entire season without pay – a move that will cost him about $1.6 million. Three other players were also suspended. Anthony Hargrove, who is now a member of the Green Bay Packers was sidelined for eight games, Will Smith was banned for four games and Scott Fujita will miss three.
Vilma denied playing any role in this scandal, “I never set out to intentionally hurt any player and never enticed any teammate to intentionally hurt another player,” he said.
The NFL claims to have supporting evidence of the infractions as a result of their investigation, but as of yet, have not released any of it.
The suit will force Goodell to produce evidence. The suit in U.S. District Court in New Orleans claims Goodell, "relied on, at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies" when he spoke about Vilma and the NFL’s bounty investigation. Goodell said that Vilma was a leader of the bounty program which put up thousands of dollars for hits that took out opposing players from the 2009 season through the 2011 season.
By taking this to court with the support of the NFL Players Union a neutral third party judge will oversee this dispute as opposed to Roger Goodell acting as judge and jury. So, instead of sitting in his New York office and passing judgment in a vacuum, he will have to name names and produce sources. If someone told him that they saw Vilma pay money for an injury-producing hit, who was it? When did they say it?
Goodell began his tenure as NFL commissioner on September 1, 2006. On April 10, 2007, the NFL introduced a new conduct policy to control off-field behavior by the players with the hopes of preserving the league’s public image. The policy implements a tougher, new personal-conduct policy and each player that has been suspended must reapply for reinstatement. The policy only applies to player’s personal lives and image in the public spotlight.
One of the first suspensions under the new policy was a controversial one. Adam “Pacman” Jones was suspended for 22 games in 2007 because of numerous infractions. He had been question by the police on ten different occasions including once for his involvement in a fight and shooting in a Las Vegas strip club in which one man was left paralyzed. Although he hadn’t been charged with a crime, Goodell suspended him anyway. Ultimately, Jones pleaded no contest to a charge of conspiracy to commit disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor.
Another notable suspension was that of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger following a police investigation into accusations by a 20-year-old college student that Roethlisberger got her drunk and sexually assaulted her at a bar. Ben was never charged but, Goodell considered the resulting press coverage an embarrassment to the league.
Michael Vick was suspended for six games immediately after he pled guilty to federal charges in his notorious dogfighting scandal. After an 18-month jail sentence, the suspension was lowered to two games.
Some of Goodell’s suspensions were for more minor things as well. In 2009, Buffalo Bills running back, Marshawn Lynch, was suspended for three games after police found a 9 mm semiautomatic handgun inside a backpack in the trunk of his car. He pled guilty to having a concealed firearm in a vehicle and was sentenced to 80 hours of community service and three years of probation.
In all of these cases, Roger Goodell has made decisions on his own and some people have said that he may have too much power in handing out suspensions. After Pittsburgh’s James Harrison was fined $75,000 for two hits in a game that the commissioner deemed were illegal, his teammate, Troy Polamalu said, “he’s got all the power; that may be part of the problem, that there needs to be some type of separation of power like our government. There should be some type of players involved in decisions over how much people should be fined or what they should be fined for, as well as coaches, as well as front office people.
“I don’t think it should be just totally based on what two or three people may say who are totally away from the game. I think it should be some of the players who are currently playing.”
For his part, Goodell says that he is just protecting the brand. Once in an interview he said, “My job is to protect the integrity of the NFL and to make sure the game is as safe as possible.”
He also claims that the personal conduct policy is “designed to protect those players and their reputations, because I think we have a bunch of great guys in the league.”