New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma has sued NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in federal court for slander and libel for public remarks Goodell made regarding Vilma when issuing charges and discipline against the franchise, coaches and four players in the Saints' "bounty" scandal.
Vilma, who was suspended for the entire season for allegedly offering a $10,000 bounty to any player who put big hits on quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner in the 2009 playoffs, has steadfastly denied these charges and called for evidence to support them: Evidence his attorney said should be revealed in existing grievances with arbitrators, an appeal hearing with Goodell or in Federal Court in Louisiana.
Vilma, 30, is asking for unspecified damages and filed the 16-page lawsuit independent of the NFLPA. No date has been set for trial.
"Commissioner Goodell opted to enter into the public arena rather than proceed appropriately and deliberately within the confines of the NFL process," Vilma's attorney, Peter Ginsberg told NFL.com. "In doing that, he made a series of horrific and false accusations about Jonathan. The commissioner, having wandered into the public arena, is now being asked to answer for the damage he's done in making those erroneous accusations.
"He made some serious accusations, which we will be able to prove in a fair forum, that were irresponsible."
In a statement, the NFL said: "We have not yet reviewed the filing. 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."
The Saints declined comment.
On Twitter, Vilma stated: "Maybe this will get some people's attention," and "As I've said before I'VE NEVER PAID OR INTENDED TO PAY ANY AMOUNT OF MONEY TO ANY PLAYER FOR INTENTIONALLY HURTING AN OPPONENT."
The NFL, which conducted a lengthy investigation into the bounty program, said it has ample evidence to prove that a bounty program existed from 2009-2011 and proof that all parties that have been disciplined had direct ties. Portions of the evidence have been reported, but a league source said it is possible that the official evidence could be made public after the NFL Players Association's grievance and player appeals process is complete.
That evidence also was reviewed by former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White, who told NFL Network that the information is solid and thorough and "In my life as a prosecutor, I've had a lot less (evidence) to obtain a conviction. So no question about how solid the evidence is."
In discussing this lawsuit, Ginsberg said he expects Vilma will be able to play this season, either by having been cleared through arbitration, appeal or other legal means. That path, though, is far from being outlined. Vilma's suspension was to have taken affect earlier this month, but he has been allowed to workout with the team while his case is under appeal.
"This lawsuit is directed to Jon trying to win back his reputation," Ginsberg said.
Former Saints and current Cleveland Browns linebacker Scott Fujita (three games), Former Saints and current Green Bay Packers defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (eight games) and Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games) have joined Vilma in filing two grievances against the NFL, one of which was heard May 16. The next will be heard May 30. All players also could appeal to Goodell to have their suspensions reduced.
Saints coach Sean Payton has been suspended for a season for his role in the bounty program. General manager Mickey Loomis will be suspended for the first eight games. Assistant head coach Joe Vitt, who has acknowledges a pay-for-performance program, will be suspended for the first six games. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, who has acknowledged that he was the ringleader and coordinator of the bounty program, was suspended, indefinitely.
Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @Wyche89.