New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, suspended by the league as part of the sweeping punishments imposed in the team’s bounty scandal, sued NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation Thursday.
Vilma’s 16-page lawsuit, filed in federal court in Louisiana, contends that Goodell “made public statements concerning Vilma which were false, defamatory and injurious to Vilma’s professional and personal reputation.”
Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season for his alleged role in the team’s bounty program, which, according to the NFL, paid players over three seasons for hits that injured opponents.
Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications, said in a written statement: “We have not yet reviewed the filing. However, our commitment to player safety and the integrity of the game is our main consideration. We recognize that not everyone will agree with decisions that need to be made.”
Vilma seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages in the lawsuit.
Along with Vilma, Former Saints defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was suspended for eight games, Saints defensive lineman Will Smith was suspended for four games and former Saints linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended for three games.
Earlier, Saints Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the year and former defensive coordinator Gregg Willams, who the league said organized the bounty program, was suspended indefinitely. General Manager Mickey Loomis was suspended for half a season and assistant head coach Joe Vitt will miss six games.
The Saints were fined $500,000 and stripped of a pair of second-round draft choices.
The NFL announced May 2 that Vilma and the three other players had been suspended without pay in connection with the bounty program.
In a written release, the NFL said “the investigation concluded that while a captain of the defensive unit, Vilma assisted Williams in establishing and funding the program. Multiple independent sources also confirmed that Vilma offered a specific bounty-- $10,000 in cash--to any player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 Divisional Playoff Game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who knocked Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game the following week (played on January 24, 2010).”
Vilma’s lawsuit says that he “never established, or assisted in establishing, a bounty program or any similar program in violation of NFL rules.”
It also contends that Vilma never pledged, made or received payments under a bounty program, never targeted an opposing player in violation of league rules and never engaged in unsafe or prohibited contact. The lawsuit says that Vilma “never paid, or intended to pay, $10,000, or any amount of money” to have Warner or Favre knocked from a playoff game.
“Goodell’s statements forever falsely taint and permanently damage Vilma, in the eyes of NFL clubs, media, fans and sponsors, as a player who brazenly disregards NFL rules and intentionally attempts to injure his opponents,” according to the lawsuit. “Media will forever mention his name in the context of the bounty investigation and fans will forever remember Vilma with ill repute rather than remember his substantial accomplishments on and off the field. In addition, NFL clubs will be less likely to sign Vilma as a result of his tainted reputation and sponsors will be less likely to pay Vilma to promote their products and services.”
Vilma asks for a jury trial and seeks “all compensatory damages he has suffered, including consequential and incidental damages, as a result of Goodell’s wrongful conduct.” He also asks for unspecified punitive damages and costs, expenses and attorney fees.
Vilma appealed his suspension. That appeal is pending. The NFL Players Association contested the suspensions of the four players via a pair of arbitration cases.
In one case, the union has asserted that Goodell lacked the authority to suspend the players for conduct that occurred prior to the ratification of the sport’s current labor agreement last August. Even if Goodell does have that authority, the union says, all appeals should be heard by the sport’s two appeals officers for on-field discipline, Art Shell and Ted Cottrell, rather than by Goodell.
In the other case, the union maintains that any discipline in the matter falls under the authority of Stephen Burbank, the University of Pennsylvania law professor who is the sport’s system arbitrator.
The union has informed the league that it is reserving the right to appeal the suspensions of Hargrove, Smith and Fujita pending the arbitration cases.