Jonathan Vilma, the New Orleans Saints linebacker fighting a full-season suspension from the National Football League, told a U.S. judge he never offered or received money for inflicting extra-violent hits on opponents.
The NFL in May banned Vilma from participating in the coming football season for his role in what has been called the Saints’ “bounty” program. Three other players, two of whom now play for other teams, received shorter suspensions.
Vilma sued NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation and filed a separate action against the 32-team league seeking to undo his ban. An eight-year NFL veteran, Vilma was a first-round draft pick by the New York Jets in 2004.
“There was not a bounty program,” he told U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan at a hearing today in New Orleans. “I’ve never offered money to hurt another player -- not with the Saints, not with the Jets, not in my whole career.”
The National Football League Players Association has sued to overturn the punishments of players Scott Fujita, Anthony Hargrove and Will Smith.
Gregg H. Levy, a lawyer for the New York-based NFL, told Berrigan today that the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the league gives Goodell exclusive authority to deal with “conduct detrimental to the integrity of the game.”
“This is the process to which the players agreed,” Levy said, referring to the players’ association. “They agreed the commissioner would maintain public confidence in the integrity of the game. Mr. Vilma may not like that bargain. That’s not for him -- and with all due respect -- it’s not for this court to decide. His motion should be denied.”
Besides Vilma, Berrigan also heard testimony today from his interim head coach, Joe Vitt, and teammates Scott Shanle, Sedrick Ellis and Roman Harper.
The judge didn’t issue a ruling. She asked lawyers for both sides to submit more arguments by Aug. 3.
Saints coach Sean Payton was suspended for the year over the bounty allegations, while the the team’s former defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, now a member of the St. Louis Rams organization, was banned indefinitely. The league said about two dozen Saints players, led by Williams, paid each other as much as $1,500 for targeting opponents such as Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre from 2009 to 2011.
“Gregg Williams is probably the best defensive coordinator I’ve ever had,” Vilma said.
“He hated penalties,” the linebacker said. “He said never cross the line and never hurt the team.”
Still, Vilma characterized Williams as fiery, aggressive and often vulgar. Because of that persona, the linebacker said he at first believed Williams was “crazy.”
Vilma was followed to the witness stand by Vitt. The interim head coach hugged his player before beginning his own testimony.
Vitt, who also faces a six-game suspension and a $100,000 fine for his role in the alleged bounty program, called Vilma “a great player,” as integral to the team as quarterback Drew Brees.
The interim coach said he met with Goodell for several hours in appealing his own punishment. Vitt said he repeatedly told Goodell the team “never crossed the line” or tried to injure or “maim” opposing players.
“Were you aware of a pay-for-performance program among defensive players?” the judge asked the Saints coach.
“Yes,” Vitt said. “This has always been a fun-based performance.”
Now in his 34th year in professional football, the Saints coach described pay-for-performance as a practice in which players put up money for various defensive plays that help the team, such as a tipped ball resulting in an interception.
“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 a penalty that hurt 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.”
Shanle, a linebacker, told the court that Vilma, who captained the Saints defensive unit, never encouraged teammates to hurt their opponents.
“Those words would never come out of his mouth -- to go out and intentionally injure somebody,” Shanle said.
Under cross-examination from NFL lawyer Gladstone Jones, Shanle said there was a team pay-for-performance program that included bonuses for knocking opponents out of the game.
The case is Vilma v. Goodell, 12-cv-1283, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana (New Orleans).