NEW ORLEANS — One day after his suspension in the NFL’s bounty probe was overturned, Jonathan Vilma moved forward with his defamation claims against Commissioner Roger Goodell, while Drew Brees and other teammates went on the offensive against Goodell and the league office.
“What I would like to see is a level of accountability on the part of the NFL and Commissioner Goodell in regards to mishandling of this entire situation,” Brees said after practice Wednesday. “We as players hold ourselves and are held to a very strict code of conduct both on and off the field. We have to be accountable to that, as it should be, and I feel like they should be held to the same standards.
“If someone would just come out in the league office and admit, ‘You know what? We could have handled this situation better,’ it would go such a long way with both players and fans. People would really come around to realize what this thing was all about because right now the league office and Commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players.”
Speaking later at a special league meeting in Dallas, Goodell, when apprised of Brees’ comments, said he wouldn’t apologize.
“To have a bounty program where you’re targeting players for injury is completely unacceptable in the NFL, and it is clear that occurred for three years despite all of the denials,” Goodell said.
Vilma was initially suspended an entire season while three other players — Saints defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, received various suspensions of shorter lengths.
Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner appointed by Goodell to handle the final round of appeals, threw out the suspensions and ruled there would be no fines, either, for any of the players. However, he absolved only Fujita. Tagliabue still found that Vilma and Smith took part in a Saints program that rewarded injurious hits and that Hargrove was not entirely truthful when NFL investigators asked him about the pool, but he said the suspensions levied by Goodell were disproportionate to how players had historically been punished for similar behavior, and because there was no clear link to “tough talk” about taking opponents out of game and the actual play on the field.
In motions filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Vilma and the NFL Players Association filed motions dropping their claims against the league over the player-discipline phase of the bounty probe.
However, Vilma notified U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan he would continue to pursue defamation claims he filed against the commissioner back in May, and asked the judge to open the discovery process which includes the collection of evidence and deposing of witnesses. Later in the day, Berrigan ruled against opening discovery at this time, likely because she has yet to rule on the NFL’s motion to dismiss Vilma’s claims. Vilma made it clear that he still believes his reputation has been harmed by the way Goodell spoke publicly about allegations that Vilma was the ring-leader of a bounty program which rewarded hits that injured targeted opponents, and that he put up $10,000 bounties on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009-10 playoffs.
“Well the most important part of me being able to play now and not having to worry about a lingering suspension, that part is over,” Vilma said. “I’m excited about that. The next part is really, that’s outside of football. That’s talking about attacking a man’s character, attacking a man’s integrity.
Vilma said he could not be sure what kind of settlement he might be willing to accept, but sounded like he was more interested in seeing through a court case with evidence made public than taking a financial settlement and keeping quiet.
“This is my career. There are no do-overs in football. I don’t get to stop, wait five years and start over and come back with a new attitude, or a new face, or anything like that,” Vilma said. “This is my legacy. This is what I leave behind. If I were to stop now, the only thing people are going to remember is the bounty. They’re not going to remember anything before that. They’re not going to remember all the accolades. That’s why it’s very important.”
Goodell said Tagliabue’s report “made it quite clear that he holds the management and the coaches responsible. My personal view is I hold everyone responsible. We have to have a personal responsibility here. Player health and safety is an important issue in this league.”
Saints head coach Sean Payton is serving a full-season suspension, while general manager Mickey Loomis served eight games and assistant head coach Joe Vitt six.
Smith, the Saints’ defensive end, also was critical of Tagliabue’s opinion, saying that while he was pleased his suspension was overturned, he did not understand why he wasn’t completely exonerated. He said he thought the testimony of two key NFL witnesses in the probe, former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former defensive assistant Mike Cerullo, cleared him, though the NFL disagreed.
According to transcripts of closed hearings obtained by The Associated Press from a person with the role in the case, Williams and Cerullo both testified that Smith contributed money to a pay-for-performance pool that among other things rewarded hard legal hits, including those that knocked players out of games. However, when asked directly if Smith every put a bounty on anyone or even suggested that the Saints should try to injure any opposing player, both former coaches answered, “No.”
“People actually think that we actually went out and did this, and we didn’t do this,” Smith said of the bounty program, adding that he had not decided whether to pursue any defamation claims of his own. “The only thing that was going on was a pay-for-performance that pretty much every other team in the league has and have had for years. That was it, I never participate in a bounty or put money down to injure another player or encourage other guys to injure other players.”
Vilma said he was not bothered by the wording of Tagliabue’s ruling, saying he fully expected the former commissioner, who works with a firm that represents the NFL, to be careful not to expose his client to liability.
Brees had a dimmer view.
“I hate to say this because it sounds so conspiracy theorist, but it seems like the last, at least, month or so, especially once Tagliabue stepped in, it’s very staged, as in, ‘OK, how do we get ourselves out of this mess, let the players off,” Brees said. “Thank God we have a union that can represent the players and fight the process and represent our guys. Unfortunately, the coaches don’t have that. The coaches are told the way it’s going to be, and they have no way to fight back unfortunately, because I’d say certainly Mickey Loomis, Joe Vitt and Sean Payton didn’t deserve what they got.