Friday, May 18, 2012
Sizing up Vilma's lawsuit against Goodell
By Andrew Brandt
Welcome to Courtroom Football, the sequel. Following the 2011 version, “The Lockout,” we now have the 2012 version, “The Bounties.”
After NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspensions of Saints head coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis, which went (relatively) smoothly, Goodell’s player suspensions haven't been received quietly.
The NFLPA first filed two grievances -- one heard Wednesday, one to be heard May 30 -- advancing different legal theories to remove jurisdiction from Goodell. Now Jonathan Vilma has raised the stakes with a defamation lawsuit against Goodell. Seeking to clear his name and reputation -- and perhaps pick up monetary damages along the way -- Vilma has filed in his “home court” in U.S. District Court in the Eastern District of Louisiana, requesting a jury trial in front of likely Saints fans.
The suit advances two basic arguments:
The comments at issue are (1) a March 2 memo and March 21 release, both alleging that Vilma had offered $10,000 to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship Game in 2010, and (2) a May 2 release alleging that Vilma assisted Gregg Williams in establishing and funding the bounty program, and that Vilma had personally placed a bounty on Kurt Warner and Favre.
Vilma argues, as he has tweeted publicly, that he neither established a bounty program nor contributed any funds to such an enterprise.
Vilma argues that Goodell’s statements are false and injurious to his professional and personal reputation, a reputation tarnished to the public, to NFL clubs and to future potential employers outside the NFL.
Need for evidence
Vilma argues that Goodell has not revealed any direct evidence demonstrating that the Saints' bounty program existed, relying on “at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies." This merges with the NFLPA’s repeated requests for more detailed and specific evidence.
With Goodell having negotiated -- through the collective bargaining agreement -- the continuing right to be the ultimate arbiter on player conduct, the NFLPA has no ability to go inside Goodell’s decision-making process. Now that Vilma has taken this out of the realm of the personal-conduct policy into court, the NFLPA hopes that -- through Vilma -- this will provide them with the evidence they have been requesting.
Goodell’s lawyers -- and there is quite a roster of them -- will immediately try to have the case dismissed, arguing that Vilma's claims are “pre-empted, ” as disputes between players and the commissioner are expressly governed by the CBA.
In the event the case is not dismissed, Goodell will argue that Vilma, as a well-known NFL player, is a "public figure" and thus required to show "actual malice" and knowingly false statements by Goodell, a high standard of proof.
My sense is that the NFL’s concern here is less with the merits of the defamation suit and more with the discovery phase of the trial, if it gets to that point, in which Goodell would have to disclose sensitive information that he has been unwilling to share with the NFLPA or the public up to this point.
Where there is a lot of money at stake, and there is here, there will be lawyers and lawsuits. Welcome to the return of Courtroom Football. Stay tuned.