NEW ORLEANS — Jonathan Vilma is again asking a federal judge to overturn his suspension in the NFL’s bounty probe of the New Orleans Saints, and the NFL Players Association is making a similar request on behalf of three other players.
In papers filed in U.S. District Court in New Orleans on Monday, Vilma said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell conducted a “farcical review” of previously overturned disciplinary action before ruling last week that the Saints linebacker would remain suspended for the season.
Although Vilma still has an appeal pending within the framework of the NFL’s labor agreement, the linebacker said that Goodell has continued to abuse his power and demonstrate bias, leaving no hope for a fair process that would respect Vilma’s “industrial due process rights.”
Vilma also is requesting U.S. District court Judge Ginger Berrigan to bar Goodell from handling any further action in the bounty matter and appoint a neutral arbitrator.
“The commissioner of a professional sports league is not exempt from the requirement that he or she be impartial when serving as an arbitrator, and courts vacate arbitration awards when a commissioner falls short of the required standard of impartiality in considering a particular matter,” the new legal papers said. “Vilma has not and could not receive a fair hearing as long as Goodell presides. The supposedly fair and neutral arbitrator at the Appeal Hearings has prejudged the evidence, publicly proclaimed his conclusions in advance of the Appeal Hearings, and so vehemently endorsed the allegations against Vilma publicly and in advance of the Appeal Hearings that he could not possibly have acted in a fair and neutral manner.”
Vilma is facing the longest suspension of four players punished in connection with what the NFL has said was a pool that rewarded Saints players with improper cash bonuses for hits that injured opponents. Saints defensive end Will Smith was docked four games, free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove seven games and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita, a former Saint, one game.
Smith’s punishment also remains unchanged from what Goodell initially handed down. Hargrove’s suspension was reduced by one game and he was given credit for five games missed as a free agent. Fujita’s ban was reduced from three games.
The NFLPA, which also filed papers Monday, is representing Smith, Hargrove and Fujita. Vilma has his own lawyers, Peter Ginsberg and Duke Williams.
All four players have already asked Goodell to recuse himself from the NFL appeals process, but he has so far refused. The NFLPA points out that although Goodell was given the power in the league’s current labor agreement to discipline players for conduct detrimental to the game, he may only do so if he complies with “governing legal standards.”
The union said Goodell violated those standards by talking publicly about the players’ alleged wrongdoing before the disciplinary process had begun, and by failing to consider conflicting witness testimony or mischaracterizations of evidence by league investigators.
A three-member appeals created by the NFL’s labor agreement vacated the initial suspensions on Sept. 7 and told Goodell he needed to clarify the basis for his rulings. The panel noted that punishments should not have anything to do with cash paid out of the Saints’ pay-for-performance pool, because an arbitrator other than the commissioner is supposed to handle such salary cap violations.
Vilma’s latest legal filing points out that Goodell has repeatedly mentioned pay-for-performance allegations as part of the basis for the initial punishment, and that the commissioner’s decision to maintain the same suspension for Vilma highlights the lack of fairness in the process.
Saints coaches and players have acknowledged the existence of a pool that both fined players for penalties and offered rewards for big plays, including big, non-penalized hits that may have resulted in opposing players leaving games for a play or longer.
Goodell has stated that in their acknowledgement of the pool, the Saints have admitted they encouraged hits that were shown to have injured opponents. Regardless of intent, Goodell said, such a program is intolerable because it sends the message that hits that hurt opponents deserve a reward, and that can affect how players on team approach subsequent games.
Vilma and the NFLPA initially filed suit in July, but the matter was placed on hold when the NFL appeal panel vacated the initial player suspensions on technical grounds and the disciplinary phase started over.
Much of the content of Monday’s legal filing outlines claims made previously to the court, including:
—That the NFL has refused to share most of its evidence, including original documents that could have been fabricated or altered by a former fired Saints assistant coach with a purported vendetta against the club.
—That the league has refused has refused to allow its key witnesses to be cross-examined.
—That Goodell has ignored empirical data outlining the relative infrequency with which accused players were penalized or fined for rough play, or the relatively few number of players injured in games against the Saints.
“No system of American justice permits a person to be punished without having had the opportunity to substantively review, investigate and question the evidence and the sources of such evidence against him or her, and then to be judged by a person who previously had publicly pre-judged the merits of the allegations,” Vilma’s lawsuit said.