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Judge in bounty case scrutinizes key factual claim made by NFL

Roger Goodell

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell speaks at a press conference following an owners meeting Tuesday, May 22, 2012, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)


Judge Helen G. Berrigan issued an order today in the bounty cases. Though it contained no ruling, it hinted at a decision she may be thinking about making, specifically as to Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s defamation claim against Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Judge Berrigan has ordered the parties to identify by Friday at noon the date on which the NFLPA allegedly asked the NFL to defer disciplining players on March 21, the same day he disciplined the coaches and other non-players in the bounty case.

“The Court is aware that Goodell stated, during the March 21, 2012 interview with the NFL Network and ESPN, that he would have disciplined the players at the same time as the coaches but for the NFLPA’s indication that they ‘wanted some time to investigate [the allegations] and talk to its own players,’” Judge Berrigan writes in the order, a copy of which was obtained by PFT. “The Court is asking for the specific date on which this request occurred. If the date is already in the record, the parties may simply cite to the relevant document in the record; if it is not, then the parties shall submit the relevant evidence.”

Judge Berrigan apparently is trying to confirm -- or debunk -- the NFL’s claim that the decision to suspend the players already had been made at the time the league imposed discipline on the non-players. If the NFL hadn’t made the decision to suspend the players on or before March 21, then the statements made on March 21 by Goodell regarding Vilma could be viewed as unnecessary to the disciplinary process and thus not within the confines of Goodell’s job duties and, most importantly, completely beyond the scope of the labor agreement’s arbitration procedures.

In English, if Goodell actually hadn’t made the decision as to the players on March 21, Vilma’s defamation lawsuit can proceed in court.

At the August 10 hearing before Judge Berrigan, NFL outside counsel Gregg Levy reiterated the position that the decision was made as of March 21, but that the league waited at the union’s request. "[T]he Commissioner was prepared to issue his suspension decision with regard to the players at the same time that he disciplined the franchise and the coaches. But he held off doing that. He held off doing that because he was asked to do that by the Union, which represented to him that it was conducting its own investigation and no investigation ensued,” Levy said.

Judge Berrigan seems to be calling B.S., in not-so-subtle fashion. And it’ll be interesting to see what the parties submit on Friday in response to her order.

If, in the end, the NFL can’t substantiate the contention that the NFLPA asked for the discipline to be delayed beyond March 21, the impact could extend beyond Vilma’s defamation claim. Judge Berrigan will have caught the league with its fingers in the cookie jar of fabrication, which will influence to some extent the manner in which she views any other factual claims made by the league.