‘Too Harsh,’ NFL Punishment May Lack Remedy, Judge Says

The full-season suspension of professional football player Jonathan Vilma for his alleged role in a player injury bounty program was “too harsh,” a judge said -- adding that she may be unable to change it.

U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan in New Orleans today heard two hours of arguments from the National Football League and players over the NFL’s request that she throw out challenges to the punishments by Vilma, a New Orleans Saints linebacker, and three other suspended athletes. She didn’t rule.

“I think the penalty was too harsh,” the judge said, She said she wanted to rule in Vilma’s favor. “If I can do it legally, I will,” she said.

“I feel very powerless up here,” Berrigan said, citing the disciplinary provisions in the union contract. “I don’t think it was fair.”

The collective-bargaining agreement between the NFL Players Association and the league gives Commissioner Roger Goodell the authority to punish conduct detrimental to the game and league, the judge said.

“Does ‘conduct detrimental’ vacate everything else?” the judge said. “That doesn’t seem what the players bargained for.”

Berrigan ended the hearing saying she had reached preliminary conclusions and “will try to issue a decision as quickly as possible.”

“This hearing has been very helpful,” she said. “It has raised some questions in my mind about what I can and can’t do.”

Injury Queries

The judge questioned Vilma’s attorney, Peter R. Ginsberg, about giving cash rewards to players for hits resulting in opponents’ being carted off the field.

“It seems to me that is in fact a bounty,” she said.

Vilma wasn’t trying to injure anyone, the lawyer responded.

New Orleans player Will Smith faces a four-game ban, and former Saints Anthony Hargrove and Scott Fujita face eight-game and three-game sanctions, respectively.

“The plaintiffs are not entitled to any relief,” league lawyers argued in court papers, citing the collective-bargaining agreement. “The suspensions followed an extensive investigation by the NFL’s Security Department, the results of which were shared” with the players’ association.

About two dozen Saints players and now-former Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams participated in the bounty program, Goodell announced on March 3.

Probe’s Beginning

The NFL’s investigation started two years earlier when league officials heard the team was targeting Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Brett Favre and Kurt Warner.

Sean Payton, the team’s head coach, has also been disqualified for the entire 2012 season. Williams, now a member of the St. Louis Rams’ organization, has been banned indefinitely.

Vilma, who also sued Goodell for defamation, denied the bounty program’s existence at a July 26 hearing and testified he never paid or took money for intentionally inflicting an injury.

“I’ve never offered money to hurt another player -- not with the Saints, not with the Jets, not in my whole career,” said Vilma, who was selected by the New York Jets in the first round of the 2004 draft.

The players’ association filed suit on behalf of Smith, Fujita and Hargrove. All three cases were consolidated before Berrigan last month.

Biased Arbitrator

In court papers filed in opposition to the league’s dismissal request, the players union said Goodell failed to act as a neutral arbitrator when Vilma and the others challenged their suspensions.

“The commissioner was acting as an arbitrator in hearing the players’ disciplinary appeals,” lawyers for the players’ union said in an Aug. 3 filing. “As an arbitrator, the commissioner was subject to the prohibition against evident partiality.”

Goodell, the players’ attorneys said, “engaged in a public relations campaign defending and prejudging the very subjects he intended to arbitrate.”

Goodell didn’t breach the disciplinary process, Gladstone Jones, a lawyer for the league, said in court. The commissioner has “an open mind” about the player punishments, he said.

Goodell has repeatedly said he wants to hear from the players and would consider reducing their suspensions, Jones said. The players never gave the process a chance, he said.

“The players were caught between a rock and a hard place,” Berrigan said.

Coach’s Testimony

Joe Vitt, the acting Saints head coach, who faces a six- game suspension, told Berrigan at the July hearing there was a pay-for-performance plan rewarding players for plays that help the team.

“This has always been fun-based performance,” he testified. “A tackle is $50,” he said “Back in the old days it was like $5.” He said a “whack” was a legal tackle and one that forced a player out of the game is a “cart-off.

If a player got a needless penalty, he could lose money for hurting the team, Vitt said. He said some NFL teams gave color TV sets for defensive plays. “It was a way to have fun,” Vitt said. “A kangaroo court, if you will.”

The case is Vilma v. Goodell, 12-cv-1283, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).

To contact the reporter on this story: Andrew Harris in Chicago at aharris16@bloomberg.net; Allen Johnson Jr. in federal court in New Orleans at allenmct@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Michael Hytha at mhytha@bloomberg.net.

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