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Vilma advances defamation case, Brees blasts NFL

Thursday - 12/13/2012, 5:58pm  ET

FILE - This Oct. 21, 2012 file photo shows New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma (51) leaving the field after this team defeated the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 35-28 in an NFL football game in Tampa, Fla. Former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has overturned the suspensions of four current and former New Orleans Saints players in the league's bounty investigation of the club. Vilma initially had been suspended the whole season, while Saints defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove received shorter suspensions. (AP Photo/ Phelan Ebenhack, File)

BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer

NEW ORLEANS (AP) -- One day after his suspension in the NFL's bounty probe was overturned, Jonathan Vilma moved forward with his defamation claims against Commissioner Roger Goodell, while Drew Brees and other teammates went on the offensive against Goodell and the league office.

"What I would like to see is a level of accountability on the part of the NFL and Commissioner Goodell in regards to mishandling of this entire situation," Brees said after practice Wednesday. "We as players hold ourselves and are held to a very strict code of conduct both on and off the field. We have to be accountable to that, as it should be, and I feel like they should be held to the same standards.

"If someone would just come out in the league office and admit, 'You know what? We could have handled this situation better,' it would go such a long way with both players and fans. People would really come around to realize what this thing was all about because right now the league office and Commissioner Goodell have very little to no credibility with us as players."

Speaking later at a special league meeting in Dallas, Goodell, when apprised of Brees' comments, said he wouldn't apologize.

"To have a bounty program where you're targeting players for injury is completely unacceptable in the NFL, and it is clear that occurred for three years despite all of the denials," Goodell said.

Vilma was initially suspended an entire season while three other players -- Saints defensive end Will Smith, Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita and free-agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, received various suspensions of shorter lengths.

Paul Tagliabue, the former commissioner appointed by Goodell to handle the final round of appeals, threw out the suspensions and ruled there would be no fines, either, for any of the players. However, he absolved only Fujita. Tagliabue still found that Vilma and Smith took part in a Saints program that rewarded injurious hits and that Hargrove was not entirely truthful when NFL investigators asked him about the pool, but he said the suspensions levied by Goodell were disproportionate to how players had historically been punished for similar behavior, and because there was no clear link to "tough talk" about taking opponents out of game and the actual play on the field.

In motions filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court, Vilma and the NFL Players Association filed motions dropping their claims against the league over the player-discipline phase of the bounty probe.

However, Vilma notified U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan he would continue to pursue defamation claims he filed against the commissioner back in May, and asked the judge to open the discovery process which includes the collection of evidence and deposing of witnesses.

Later in the day, Berrigan ruled against opening discovery at this time, likely because she has yet to rule on the NFL's motion to dismiss Vilma's claims.

Vilma made it clear that he still believes his reputation has been harmed by the way Goodell spoke publicly about allegations that Vilma was the ring-leader of a bounty program which rewarded hits that injured targeted opponents, and that he put up $10,000 bounties on Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009-10 playoffs.

"Well the most important part of me being able to play now and not having to worry about a lingering suspension, that part is over," Vilma said. "I'm excited about that. The next part is really, that's outside of football. That's talking about attacking a man's character, attacking a man's integrity.

Vilma said he could not be sure what kind of settlement he might be willing to accept, but sounded like he was more interested in seeing through a court case with evidence made public than taking a financial settlement and keeping quiet.

"This is my career. There are no do-overs in football. I don't get to stop, wait five years and start over and come back with a new attitude, or a new face, or anything like that," Vilma said. "This is my legacy. This is what I leave behind. If I were to stop now, the only thing people are going to remember is the bounty. They're not going to remember anything before that. They're not going to remember all the accolades. That's why it's very important."

Goodell said Tagliabue's report "made it quite clear that he holds the management and the coaches responsible. My personal view is I hold everyone responsible. We have to have a personal responsibility here. Player health and safety is an important issue in this league."

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