Jonathan Vilma wins fight for name
Against presumption of guilt, athletes take stand -- or not -- against power
Weeks after Lance Armstrong -- a historically defiant and vigilant defender of his reputation -- suddenly decided it no longer mattered to him that the world considered him a drug cheat, two seemingly unrelated events occurred Friday: Roger Clemens, apparently intent on capitalizing on his newfound vindication after beating the U.S. government, pitched in a minor league game televised by ESPN, and a three-member panel upheld New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma's appeal of his yearlong NFL suspension by commissioner Roger Goodell.
Armstrong's capitulation sounded hollow then, and sounds even more so today. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, which had finally cornered him, was too powerful to fight, he said. Armstrong, worth millions of dollars and fortified by being one of the most popular and inspirational athletes in recent years, said that, if he thought he had a chance, he would have continued.
It was political and legal subterfuge masquerading as noble and intelligent surrender, but for anyone convinced that the power is too powerful, that rigged systems are not only corrupt but invincible and cannot be challenged, Vilma reminded us why we fight -- because the greatest asset a person has is his or her name.
The situations are not identical, or even similar, in many cases, but Clemens, Armstrong and Vilma all faced the choice of challenging powerful entities that appeared unbeatable, because of their resources and because of the disturbing presumption of guilt among the public. Although Armstrong tried to fool the public by equating talking with fighting, Clemens stood trial and was acquitted. Vilma sued the vaunted NFL and won.
Goodell still has the power to discipline the reinstated current and former Saints players. The commissioner could still attempt to suspend Vilma for half the season or agree on another sanction. The NFL system of discipline in which the commissioner hands down a penalty and hears all subsequent appeals is the closest thing to a communist tribunal in sports, and, because of the league's immense power and control, most players complain about the system but few are willing to fight hard enough to force change.
Vilma did not talk and quit. He fought, and, in a time of increasing cynicism and of power that goes increasingly unchecked, Vilma stood up for his own name. The ancillary benefit may very well be the beginning of the erosion of the Goodell monarchy. As the league and its players fight over money, the elimination of the franchise tag and curbing the commissioner's power over discipline are the two most important issues with respect to player freedom. Vilma's victory, in whatever final form it takes, was the byproduct of the NFL Players Association negotiating a structure that allows for an outside voice in the grievance process, a concept that sounds so basic.
Yet when Vilma sued Goodell for defamation in May, it was to the grimaces and groans of the establishment. By attempting to defend himself, Vilma was the villain. The Saints were caught. Goodell was capitalizing on his presumed leverage to hand down severe penalties with or without due process.
What never gained traction -- even though the NFL has never fully released the details of its investigation -- was the possibility that Vilma was actually right and that Goodell had overstepped his authority. It is the clearest example of the power of large institutions and how subconsciously the public sides with the accusation, unwilling to question the power. The possibility of innocence, though, is the reason the institutions -- the leagues, the enforcement agencies and their blue-ribbon reports -- should be transparent and accountable. In this culture, the accusation is all it takes and no one sticks around for the resolution. A photo of Vilma adorned the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline "Bounty Culture." Goodell never provided the proof, but he had made Vilma the public face of the NFL's biggest, most recent scandal. Vilma had been stamped.
The insiders knew better than to fight. Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis, Joe Vitt and Gregg Williams all took their punishments like good soldiers, perhaps because they were completely guilty, but most likely because they've been involved in American professional sports long enough to know one truth: sue the league and they might have won, but they likely would have guaranteed they would never work in the game again. As a player, Vilma had recourse and the urgency of a limited competitive window, and he took the extraordinary step of using resources outside of football -- namely, the courts -- to challenge his sport.
Maybe nothing changes in the eyes of the general public. Maybe Clemens still doesn't get into the Hall of Fame, but it cannot be said that he did not attempt to defend his name. In one sense, Clemens has already won. Had he done nothing and not challenged the 2007 Mitchell report, perhaps Clemens would be in silent exile. Today, guilty or not, the ground is being smoothed for him to return to legitimacy. He is on national television. He is pitching to his son. He is already talking of reporting to spring training with the Astros in February.
Vilma might eventually pay a price for his courage. He's been in the league nine years, and, when it is time to say goodbye to the playing field, there might be no post-playing career coaching opportunities or a soft landing at the NFL Network for him because he stood up to Goodell and corporations never forget. When the mirror can be the harshest judge, however, Vilma also knows he can live every day without wondering whether his name was worth the fight. Maybe he'll never get his good name back, but no one can ask him why, if he felt an injustice occurred, he did not fight back.
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