NFL

Vilma lawsuit puts Goodell on the run

Jay Glazer on Saints players being suspended for Bountygate.
Jay Glazer on Saints players being suspended for Bountygate.
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Jen Floyd Engel

Jen Floyd Engel, selected as the top columnist in the 2012 Associated Press Sports Editors annual contest, started working at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997 and became a columnist in 2003 before joining FOXSports.com. Sports opinions? She's never short of them. And love her or hate her, she'll be just another one of the boys. Follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook.

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Based on the advice of my legal counsel, which really was a five-line Gchat with my lawyer friend, I am not attempting to assert any facts that have been neither confirmed nor denied and which may or may not be substantiated by true events, if any, about Jonathan Vilma. This is only an opinion.

A bounty has been placed on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, and Vilma is just the latest to lay his ass out.

It is a test, really. They want to see if they can get Goodell running sideways, get his head sideways. How did former New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator and blackballed league scapegoat Gregg Williams so eloquently put it?

"Kill the head, and the body will die.”

Yes, there is a new bounty program in the NFL, and players are paying (lawyers fees) to take a run at Goodell and the league on this steady stream of plausible deniability b.s. that:

a) Football is a game of physically punishing acts, and violence, and maliciously knocking the you-know-what out of your opponent even if, and in some cases especially if, somebody gets hurt.

b) How cumulative effects of this organized violence can be brutal and debilitating brain trauma.

The NFL not only thrived on this culture of violence, but it raked in billions from it. And as soon as things went south — public relations-wise and possibly legally — the NFL cut these guys loose.

Cut Vilma loose. Cut Williams loose. And cut loose so many untold former players — the stories we know and those we have no idea of — to battle the physical and mental demons at least partially brought on by careers spent bashing and having their heads bashed for the benefit of a league now claiming ignorance on brain trauma.

Maybe, the league did this to save money, or to protect the brand. Or maybe, it did this to protect itself legally, which is ironic because lawsuits are exactly what the NFL is getting now.

Former players are suing the league, arguing the league did not do its due diligence in informing players of the dangers of concussions or their moral duty to take care of players battling the results of that negligence. And now Vilma is suing on grounds of defamation.

This latest suit is a lot bigger than whether Goodell defamed Vilma by saying he was a leader of what amounted to a team-sanctioned bounty program that put up thousands of dollars for hits that caused injury. That is just the way to get into court, where the best defense against defamation is the truth.

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The problem for Goodell is that the discovery process is a beast. He would have to show his work, revealing his sources on Bountygate, as well as any other info unearthed during the investigation that he has been able to keep in-house.

Goodell, if he has good legal counsel, probably has been advised that if he wants to avoid people going digging, he shouldn't give them reason to pick up a shovel. But he has given players such as Vilma every reason to dig by scapegoating them and making them look like rogue thugs who turned an otherwise safe Sunday activity into a dangerous sport. It is disingenuous when viewed generously and the height of hypocrisy in any light.

Goodell, for all practical purposes, ended Vilma’s career when he suspended him for a season. What does Vilma have to lose? Why not go for a kill shot in court? Why not go digging?

I am not saying players do not know the risks, or do not willingly sign up for, or do not get paid handsomely for the risk. What I am saying is I get the feeling those “dumb NFL players” — you know, the ones doing most of the risk-taking and sacrificing, league-building and money-making — finally have had enough.

Getting their heads handed to them, figuratively during the lockout and literally during games, has to frustrate them. Realizing that players they grew up watching are killing themselves or hobbling into reunions must sadden them. But listening to the league talk as if it has a Vilma problem, not a culture problem, had to be one bridge too far.

It might not be defamation. But it is certainly b.s.

And now Goodell, already viewed as an anti-player dictator with way too much unchecked power, has thrown gasoline onto what had been a controlled fire — guys like James Harrison occasionally popping off about the hypocrisy. What many NFL players think and are too scared to say for fear of positioning themselves in the crosshairs is the NFL is scapegoating these Saints players. The bounty system was a dirty business, and Williams went too far, but it is a flat-out lie to pretend this is not in the culture of the sport.

And now the league is cutting people loose so its executives can hold news conferences demonstrating how serious they are about brain trauma and, if necessary, have closing arguments about just how vigilantly they've responded when alerted to problems.

What the league gambled on was players silently taking it yet again. It gambled wrong.

Vilma's lawsuit is a test because it makes Goodell decide what he’s willing to risk — a court not dismissing the suit because it's without merit? Discovery? Having to reveal all his evidence in Bountygate for public consumption and thereby trial by public opinion? Having his league, his game being villainized instead of Vilma?

What was it that Williams said about San Francisco 49ers receiver Kyle Williams, how “we need to (bleeping) put a lick on him, move him to decide. He needs to decide.” This is basically what players are now saying about Goodell, and that's why he'd had better be careful.

There's a bounty on Goodell. And he becomes vulnerable when he's taken outside the NFL office and into court.

Tagged: Saints, 49ers, Jonathan Vilma, Kyle Williams

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