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On March 2, the NFL rocked the football community when it released a statement indicating that it had evidence of a New Orleans Saints “bounty program,” which included “payments to players for inflicting injuries on opposing players that would result in them being removed from a game.” After weeks of suspense and speculation, Commissioner Roger Goodell began handing out punishments, including a one-year suspension for head coach Sean Payton and an indefinite suspension for then-defensive-coordinator Gregg Williams. Linebacker and defensive captain Jonathan Vilma, the player facing the largest penalty – a one year suspension – appears to have taken Goodell’s comments personally.
On May 17, Vilma sued Goodell in the Eastern District of Louisiana, alleging Goodell’s “public statements concerning Vilma [were] false, defamatory, and injurious to Vilma’s professional and personal reputation.” The complaint further alleges Goodell had “no reasonable grounds for believing the truth of his Statements. Goodell relied on, at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies in making the Statements.”
Peter Ginsberg, Vilma’s attorney, was quoted as saying, “Commissioner Goodell opted to make very public and unfortunately erroneous allegations against Jonathan. By making these false and public statements, he has significantly harmed Jonathan’s reputation and ability to make a living.”
The suit seeks unspecified damages, costs, expenses, and attorney’s fees. Interestingly, the suit does not seek reinstatement in the NFL or an appeal of Vilma’s suspensions. However, Vilma has appealed the suspension separately with the league. Certainly the defamation suit and the appeal are linked, but at this time it is unclear how, or whether, the two matters will affect one another moving forward. One element of defamation is proving that the statements at issue were false. If Vilma succeeds in his case, the result may significantly help his appeal for reinstatement. However, courts are slow (Goodell was recently granted a 21-day delay in responding to Vilma’s suit), and football season is quickly approaching (Saint’s organized team workouts (OTAs) have already begun). The season may pass before Vilma ever sees his day in court.
– Mike Ritter
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