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With bounty rulings pending, Judge has clear concerns about league’s process

Vilma Bounties Football

New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, left foreground, and teammate quarterback Drew Brees, right, leave federal court in New Orleans Friday, Aug. 10,2012. A judge heard arguments on the NFL’s motion to dismiss Vilma’s lawsuit seeking to overturn his bounty suspension without making a ruling. (AP Photo/The Times-Picatune, Susan Poag) NO SALES, MAGS OUT NO SALES NO MAGS USA TODAY OUT


We saw plenty of accounts and interpretations on Friday about the things said at the most recent bounty hearing in federal court. But there’s no more reliable account than the officially-generated transcript of the proceedings.

PFT has obtained a copy of the officially-generated transcript, and it’s clear that Judge Helen G. Berrigan has concerns that cut both ways in the case against the NFL and the four suspended players: Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, Saints defensive end Will Smith, Packers defensive end Anthony Hargrove, and Browns linebacker Scott Fujita.

For starters, she expressed concern that payment of money for clean, legal hits that knock an opponent out of the game (temporarily or permanently) are bounties.

“I’m kind of seeing, like, is there really a dispute here as to -- I agree, and I’ll get into it in a few minutes about the penalties and so forth, but it seems to me that there is a confluence here that what Mr. Goodell says Mr. Vilma did was in effect admitted at the hearing a couple weeks ago,” Judge Berrigan said, referring to testimony regarding the money that was paid not for deliberate efforts to injure but clean hits that caused injury.

In other words, and as we’ve said a time or two (or more), it’s about semantics.

Second, Judge Berrigan made it clear that, despite her concern that what the Saints admitted to doing amounts to a “bounty,” she has even bigger concerns about the process that the league employed.

“I would like to rule in Mr. Vilma’s favor,” Judge Berrigan said. “I think the proceedings were neither transparent not fair. I think I made that clear the other day. I think the refusal to identify the accusers, much less have them at the hearing to be cross-examined, to look at biases, flaws in their testimony, and 18,000 documents that apparently were relied upon by Mr. Goodell, less than 200 were actually provided to you, many of them were redacted.”

She also believes that Vilma was justified in refusing to participate in the June 18 appeal hearing. “I think you were thwarted at every [turn] by Mr. Goodell’s refusal to provide you meaningful access to witnesses and to documents,” Judge Berrigan said.

Eventually, and as pointed out as the hearing was happening, Judge Berrigan said, “If I can [rule in Vilma’s favor] legally, I will. If I find a way, I will.”

As to Vilma’s defamation claim against Commissioner Roger Goodell, Judge Berrigan seems to think that Goodell’s public statements about Vilma were justified by his job duties -- and by the fact that Vilma is a public figure, who has reduced protection against false statements. She also is concerned that the labor deal blocks the lawsuit against Goodell.

Regarding the question of whether the entire pay-for-performance/bounty situation amounts to simply a salary-cap violation, Judge Berrigan seems to be far more inclined than arbitrator Richard Burbank to conclude that the Commissioner has no authority to punish players for conduct detrimental to the game in this situation. If she reaches that conclusion, the bounty penalties would have to be re-issued as cap penalties, and ultimately presided over by Burbank, not Goodell.

It still remains to be seen what the Judge will do. She said that the case is “very complicated,” and that there are “a lot” of “difficult” issues to resolve. As previously highlighted, she urged the parties to try to settle the case, and she said she may have to wait until August 30 to issue a decision, since that’s the day on which Burbank’s cap-violation decision will be appealed.

Don’t be surprised if she dismisses the defamation lawsuit but overturns the suspensions. Whatever she does, whoever loses will appeal.