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First fight in Vilma suit likely will arise under CBA

Jonathan Vilma Portrait Shoot

METAIRIE, LA - MAY 28: (EDITORS NOTE: THIS IMAGE WAS CREATED USING A VARIABLE PLANED LENS)` Jonathan Vilma, #51 of the New Orleans Saints, poses for a photo at the New Orleans Saints Training Facility on May 28, 2008 in Metairie, Louisiana. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

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Thursday’s unexpected development in the Saints’ bounty scandal came from the decision of linebacker Jonathan Vilma to sue Commissioner Roger Goodell in a Louisiana federal court. As mentioned in the first of what surely will be more than 10 and less than 1,000 items on the legal action, Goodell’s initial line of defense will arise under the labor deal.

Specifically, he’ll file a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, citing Article 43, which sets forth the procedures for “non-injury grievances.”

Here’s what it says (free one-year PFT subscription to anyone who reads it all): “Any dispute (hereinafter referred to as a ‘grievance’) arising after the execution of this Agreement and involving the interpretation of, application of, or compliance with, any provision of this Agreement, the NFL Player Contract, the Practice Squad Player Contract, or any applicable provision of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws or NFL Rules pertaining to the terms and conditions of employment of NFL players, will be resolved exclusively in accordance with the procedure set forth in this Article, except wherever another method of dispute resolution is set forth elsewhere in this Agreement.”

The lawsuit claims that Goodell lied about Vilma in multiple ways via written and spoken communications regarding Vilma’s alleged role in the bounty program. Goodell undoubtedly will argue that he was acting in his capacity as NFL Commissioner, and that all statements about the bounty investigation were made under the provisions of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws regarding the integrity of the game. Thus, the argument will be that Vilma is required to pursue “any dispute” regarding those comments to the procedures set forth in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, which will shield the NFL from the public nature of a civil action -- and ultimately from the whims of a Louisiana jury.

It’s a common argument, identical to the defense the NFL already has raised to the concussion lawsuits brought by former players. Labor agreements routinely establish in-house mechanisms for resolving disputes, and the Federal Arbitration Act gives judges a mechanism for washing their hands of lawsuits that otherwise are covered by the terms of a CBA.

That said, Vilma likely will claim that Goodell forfeited the protection of the CBA by making statements that were beyond the confines of the application of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws. The argument likely will be that Goodell should have merely suspended Vilma without public commentary or accusation, saying nothing about what Vilma allegedly did to merit the suspension.

If that’s the argument, it could have some merit. Without question, the NFL has chosen to release certain information publicly in the hopes that it will shape the perception of media and fans regarding the Saints’ bounty program. The question for the court to decide will be whether those activities pull the situation away from the four corners of the CBA.

Goodell will have other defenses. Vilma, for example, is a public figure, which means that Vilma will have to prove that Goodell acted with malice. To prove the existence of malice in this context, Vilma will have to show that Goodell knew the statements were false, or that he acted with reckless disregard as to whether the statements were true or false. Vilma’s argument, if the case progresses to that point, surely will be that Goodell jumped to irrational conclusions as to Vilma in order to advance his safety agenda.

For more talk about the lawsuit, tune in to Friday’s PFT Live, which will feature a return visit from Vilma’s lawyer, Peter Ginsberg. Until then, here’s a little more about the situation from last night’s NBC SportsTalk.