(The Root) — Linebacker Jonathan Vilma has become the face of “bountygate,” the New Orleans Saints’ alleged program that rewarded players for injurious hits. No other player has been mentioned as prominently or suffered a more severe penalty (season-long suspension). But Vilma, who last month filed a defamation lawsuit against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, faces a near-impossible task in clearing his name.
He received a firsthand lesson on Monday, when Goodell heard appeals from Vilma and three other players who were penalized. Goodell shared the league’s evidence with reporters, including Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, who wrote that “all of this cannot be invented.” Vilma and his attorney, Peter Ginsberg, were unimpressed and left the proceedings early.
Vilma complained to reporters about Goodell’s role as “judge, jury and executioner,” and Ginsberg also blasted the process. “We’re not willing to participate in that kind of sham,” the attorney said. “The commissioner had legal obligations and procedural obligations. He failed in those obligations, and as far as we’re concerned, these proceedings are over.”
Unfortunately for Vilma and any player who lands in Goodell’s doghouse, the commissioner has absolute power. If they don’t like that fact, they have only themselves and their union to blame. Goodell’s power was left intact when the league and the union settled their labor dispute last summer and signed a 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
Regardless of Goodell’s scope and players’ gripes — including former Saints player Anthony Hargrove, who said he feels like “the target of a sophisticated mugging” — the league’s case appeared strong to invited journalists. Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, currently serving an indefinite suspension, wasn’t the NFL’s only source, but his statements were among the most damaging.
Not only did Williams tell investigators specific details of every aspect of the bounty program, but the Saints’ owner, Tom Benson, was tremendously helpful, too. He allowed the NFL to conduct a sweep of the team’s computers, which reaped incriminating electronic evidence in the form of emails, PowerPoint files and other information.
The presentation persuaded most journalists in attendance, but Hargrove and suspended players Scott Fujita and Will Smith were unmoved. The trio released a statement that questioned Goodell’s “jurisdiction” and the NFL’s honor.
“As veteran players of 11, nine and nine years in this league, we are profoundly disappointed with the NFL’s conduct in this matter,” the players said. “We know what the NFL has publicly said we did, and the commissioner has chosen to try to punish us and disparage our characters based on semantics, not facts. Words are cheap and power is fleeting.
“Shame on the National Football League and Commissioner Goodell for being more concerned about ‘convicting’ us publicly than being honorable and fair to men who have dedicated their professional lives to playing this game with honor.”
Prospects for their appeals (heard by the same man, Goodell, who issued the penalties) are dim. The same is true for Vilma’s defamation lawsuit. He has a better chance in the court of public opinion than he does in courts of law or Goodell’s office.