Vilma faces tough task against the most powerful man in sports
Saints' Jonathan Vilma suing Roger Goodell for defamation in bounty case
Goodell has ultimate power in new CBA and gets to be judge, jury, appeals court
Vilma wants day in court and his lawyer argues he deserves to see all evidence
The case of Jonathan Vilma v. Roger Goodell is being tried on the Internet, in arbitrators' offices, and our court system. It seems like it is just about the Saints and the bounties they supposedly handed out: $1,000 for a cart-off, $500 for a knockdown, $250 for a bloody nose, $30 for anything requiring a Band-Aid.
If you haven't been following the NFL lately, a brief summary: Goodell suspended Vilma, a Saints linebacker, for a year as part of the Saints' bounty scandal, and Vilma responded by suing Goodell for defamation and saying there were no bounties and no scandal. It's a fundamental disagreement: Goodell says this clearly happened and Vilma says "no, it didn't." The NFL says it has 50,000 pages of evidence, and Vilma's lawyer says he hasn't seen any. So the argument goes, like a pair of little brothers fighting: Yes. No. Yes. No. Shut up. YOU shut up.
This is where the parents usually intervene, but that's the great part about being Roger Goodell: He gets to be the parent, too. He referees his own fights. If the bounty scandal has shown us anything, it is this: Goodell is the most powerful person in American pro sports. He can do what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants.
Goodell solidified this position last summer when he hammered out a new collective bargaining agreement that the owners love. Here is a little secret about rich people: They like being rich. Goodell ensured that the owners would just get richer and richer for at least 10 more years, because that's how long the CBA lasts and there is no opt-out clause. I suspect that people won't fully appreciate this until the next NFL team is sold. The price could be outrageous.
After that victory, Goodell can run his league as he sees fit. He has to answer to the owners, of course, but he can keep a few prominent, respected owners as counsel and the rest will mostly fall into line.
And this brings us back to the Vilma case. I will not defend Vilma. But shouldn't he have the right to defend himself? Vilma's lawyer, Peter Ginsberg, told me that "we told the commissioner that we would make Jonathan available if he shared the underlying information." This seems pretty simple, doesn't it? If you were accused of doing something wrong, you would want to know what, and why.
Goodell is the judge, the jury and the appeals court -- thanks to that collective-bargaining agreement. Goodell issued the suspension, and then when Vilma appealed, Goodell upheld it. I don't know if Goodell then wrote a sparkling letter of recommendation for Goodell, but it's possible.
It is hard to believe that Goodell just decided to decimate the Saints organization for the fun of it. But that isn't really the point. Who ever heard of a guilty verdict before the evidence is presented? Even now, we still don't really know why Vilma was suspended.
I asked Ginsberg if Goodell had a right to uphold his own decision, because that power was collectively bargained. He said: "It would be inaccurate to say that the parties to the CBA bargained and negotiated for the commissioner's abolition of all fundamental fairness."
(I love lawyers.)
If you think the commissioner has too much power, Ginsberg is your man. I don't think Goodell will ask him to conduct any ceremonial coin flips. Ginsberg called the commissioner "judgmental and unwilling to listen to ideas that were not consistent with his own predisposition."
He also said: "I think as long as the NFL continues to look at players as products, rather than as human beings, there are bound to be issues that arise."
At the moment, Ginsberg is a pebble in Goodell's shoe. But if he somehow wins this case, he can be a voice for the players, and a man you will hear about a lot in the next few years.
He has some history with the NFL. He helped Michael Vick steer his way through financial trouble. He represented Kevin Williams and Pat Williams in what is known as the StarCaps case. In that one, the NFL suspended the Williamses for four games for ingesting banned substances in the dietary supplement StarCaps. The NFL knew that StarCaps contained the illegal substance bumetanide, but failed to specifically warn players not to take StarCaps. (Bumetanide was not on the label.)
"Players had called the NFL hotline to ask whether they could take Starcaps and were told yes," Ginsberg said. "The NFL knew that."
You can expect some similar arguments here. What did the NFL know, and when did it know it? Is the league trying to look tough on a controversial issue (player safety this time, drugs before), rather than try to be fair to everybody involved?
Ginsberg got the Williamses' suspensions cut in half, a rare victory in the world of drug testing. Now he is trying to save Vilma's season, or at least part of it. It's a long shot, but the approach has been smart. He appealed to two arbitrators on different grounds. One arbitrator ruled against Vilma this week; the players' association will appeal. The other arbitrator has yet to rule.
And of course, there is the defamation lawsuit -- deftly filed in Louisiana, where Vilma is just a wee bit more popular than Roger Goodell.
That battle is already brewing, with Yahoo! Sports reporting that the league has a ledger detailing weekly bounty earnings for New Orleans players. Ginsberg responded with a statement ripping Goodell as "misguided and irresponsible," and saying the ledger has been misconstrued.
Ginsberg told me what he has told others: Vilma "didn't endorse or participate or know about any bounty system." Ginsberg said that Vilma has never in his career put up money to injure another player or set out to hurt another player, and he is not aware of any of his teammates who engaged in that type of activity."
Did Vilma ever say he would pay somebody to injure a player, even if he didn't really mean it?
"What I have focused on is what the commissioner says Jonathan did," Ginsberg said.
That, right there, is a tiny bit of back and forth between the most powerful person in sports and the lawyer who is challenging him again. I want Vilma to get his day in court -- not because he deserves to be exonerated, but because he deserves just that: his day in court.
If the NFL wins, though, the league will seem as invincible as ever. And the most powerful man in sports will be even more powerful.