Jonathan Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, sued National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation in reports about the team’s “bounty” program.
Vilma accused the commissioner of making false statements about him in reports about the bounties allegedly paid to players for intentionally hurting opponents during games, according to a filing in federal court yesterday in New Orleans.
“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 complaint.
Vilma was banned in March for the 2012 season without pay for his role in the Saints’ bounty program. His penalty was the most severe of the four players who were suspended. The league’s investigation concluded that as captain of the defense, Vilma assisted then-defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in establishing and funding the program that offered money to players who knocked specific opponents out of a game.
“We have not yet reviewed the filing,” Brian McCarthy, a spokesman for the NFL, said in an e-mailed statement. “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 is seeking unspecified compensatory and punitive damages and a jury trial. The league itself isn’t named as a defendant.
The NFL said Vilma offered $10,000 to any Saints player who knocked Arizona quarterback Kurt Warner out of the 2009 divisional playoff game and later pledged the same amount to anyone who took Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre out of the NFC Championship game the following week.
Vilma appealed the ban and said an arbitrator should hear the appeal instead of Goodell. He also asked the league to turn over witness statements and other documentation that linked him to the bounty program.
The league said Saints players were paid bonuses for other on-field efforts such as forcing turnovers. The payments, which came from a player-funded bounty pool, violate NFL rules about non-contract bonuses.
The penalties handed down in March by the NFL were the stiffest ever imposed on a team and its leadership. The Saints head coach, Sean Payton, was suspended for the entire season, General Manager Mickey Loomis was given a half-season suspension and assistant coach Joe Vitt received a six-game ban. The team was denied two draft picks and fined $500,000. Williams was suspended indefinitely for administering the program.
Vilma, 30, is an eight-year NFL veteran who played the past four seasons for the Saints after beginning his career with the New York Jets. He was named to the Pro Bowl for the 2005, 2009 and 2010 seasons.
He was scheduled to earn $1.6 million in salary from the Saints in 2012.
The case is Vilma v. Goodell, 12-01283, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).
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