NEW ORLEANS -- After Jonathan Vilma and seven witnesses testified Thursday that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell got his facts wrong in the bounty scandal, a federal judge decided against making an immediate ruling on whether the suspended Saints' linebacker could temporarily return to work.
The hearing gave Vilma and several current and former teammates, as well as Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, a chance to explain why they believe NFL investigators "misconstrued" evidence gathered in their bounty investigation and incorrectly concluded that the Saints had a program in place that offered cash bonuses for tackles that injured opponents.
"Everything I've worked for has been basically thrown down the toilet," Vilma said when asked about the harm his bounty suspension has done to both his pro career and charitable work that includes building schools in Haiti. "It hurts. It's tough to swallow because it's not who I am."
Vilma has asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to impose a temporary restraining order against the NFL while his lawsuit against Goodell proceeds. Vilma's suit accuses the commissioner of defamation and also asks Berrigan to permanently overturn Goodell's decision to suspend Vilma for the entire 2012 season.
NFL attorneys did not attempt to challenge testimony denying the existence of a bounty program. Rather, they argued the real question in Vilma's case was whether the federal courts had jurisdiction to overturn a process that was collectively bargained. They noted that multiple system arbitrators have already agreed that Goodell has followed the very policies for imposing discipline to which players agreed in the league's labor agreement.
"Mr. Vilma may not like that bargain but it's not for him ... or this court to decide," NFL attorney Gregg Levy argued.
Berrigan did not say when she would rule on the temporary restraining order that Vilma's attorney requested in Thursday's seven-hour hearing. However, she did say she was troubled by some of the NFL's arguments.
She said Goodell's contention that players were being punished for actions that occurred not on the field, but in meeting rooms and locker rooms, "borders on ridiculous," and cited it as one of several examples of "slicing the salami very thin."
Goodell has stated that he has jurisdiction because he is dealing with conduct detrimental to the game, not for on-field infractions that require the use of an arbitrator.
Current New Orleans defensive players Roman Harper, Sedrick Ellis, Jonathan Casillas and Scott Shanle testified on Vilma's behalf, along with retired former teammates Troy Evans and Randall Gay.
They denied ever seeing Vilma offer $10,000 cash knocking quarterbacks Brett Favre or Kurt Warner out of the 2009-10 NFC playoffs, as the NFL has said he did.
Vitt, sometimes pausing with emotion, praised Vilma as one of the finest players he has ever known, and someone as important to New Orleans' defense as record-setting quarterback Drew Brees is to the Saints' offense.
Vilma wants a swift ruling because he is rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee and said doing so at the Saints' facility is far more productive than doing it on his own.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press