By, Michael Jones
Anyone hear about this bounty scandal that is surrounding the New Orleans Saints? For all those who have been able to avoid television and internet for the past few months, the NFL, specifically Commissioner Rodger Goodell, caught the Saints giving bonuses for knocking opposing players out of games. Exactly who paid these bonuses is unclear, but a recording was released that has the Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams telling his defense to target players for the San Francisco 49ers that were recovering from injury. Most disturbingly, Coach Williams specifically instructed his men to aim for certain places where their opponents would be weak, e.g. hit the guy recovering from ACL surgery in the knee. Another recent recording has surfaced that alludes to Gregg Williams giving cash bonuses for big hits during the course of a game. Some of this evidence is pretty circumstantial, but this is Roger Goodell we are talking about, so fines and suspensions for everyone! Well in this case not everyone, but a few players, the head coach, defensive coordinator, and general manager got suspensions and fines that varied based on their perceived level of involvement and knowledge of the so-called bounty program. Among these players is Jonathan Vilma who was suspended for an entire year without pay. Vilma is less than happy about this development, and he is not the only player to ever complain about Goodell’s iron-fisted approach to running the NFL.
A lot of the recent resentment between the players and the Commissioner comes from the lockout and negotiations for the hotly contested collective bargaining agreement forged last summer between the league and the NFLPA. Players also complain about how the disciplinary process works in the NFL. Ok, so I am a player in the NFL (I wish), and I just got suspended by Goodell. I go to a hearing. Who makes the decision to suspend or not after I make my case? Rodger Goodell. I feel that this is unwarranted so I want to appeal. Who has the appellate review over Goodell’s decisions? Rodger Goodell. You can see how this would frustrate a lot of players.
So where does this leave us? Vilma was suspended for a year because he allegedly offered a $10,000 bounty for fellow defensive players to knock out opposing quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner. The information doesn’t go much further than that. A short while after Vilma was suspended, he retaliated by filing a defamation lawsuit against Rodger Goodell. To have a successful case, Vilma must prove that Goodell’s statements concerning Vilma’s role in the bounty program were false and that either Goodell knew these statements were false or spoke with reckless disregard for the truth. It is very difficult to believe Vilma’s claim has much validity. Goodell might be a tad draconian, but he is not foolish and he hired former U.S. district attorney Mary Jo White to do an investigation before handing out the suspensions. When interviewed, Ms. White stated that there was proof that bounties were being offered and paid.
Because this lawsuit will be governed by Louisiana law, Vilma is likely going to encounter a preliminary hearing where he will have to prove that his case has decent chance of winning. Louisiana has an anti-“Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation” or SLAPP statute which will shift the burden onto Vilma where he will have to present enough evidence to convince a judge that he has at least a prima facie claim. This will all have to be done without a lot of the benefits of discovery, making it very difficult for Vilma to present his case. We will see how it all shakes out, but from here this looks like another victory for the No Fun League.