NFL Files Motion to Oppose Vilma Move to Recuse Tagliabue

The National Football League said there’s no basis for disqualifying its former commissioner, Paul Tagliabue, from arbitrating a dispute over New Orleans Saints player Jonathan Vilma’s full-season suspension for alleged bounty-hunting.

The NFL called the move to take Tagliabue off the case an “untoward and baseless demand” that has “no merit,” according to a filing today in federal court in New Orleans.

Vilma argued in court filings this week that Tagliabue has a conflict of interest because he is a senior counsel with the law firm representing the current NFL commissioner, Roger Goodell. Vilma also said the firm, Covington & Burling, has represented the NFL since at least 2006 and collected millions of dollars in legal fees from the league.

“Tagliabue now has been placed in a position of presiding over a matter in which one of his firm’s most important clients, the NFL, and one of his longtime colleagues have an undeniable interest,” Vilma’s attorneys said in a court filing.

The NFL claimed that about two dozen Saints players paid one another as much as $1,500 for trying to injure opposing players including quarterback Brett Favre. The players have denied the League’s allegations.

Season Ban

Roger Goodell, the league’s current commissioner, on Oct. 9 re-imposed a full-season ban on Vilma while meting out lesser punishments to three other players. A panel of arbitrators had thrown out earlier suspensions, ruling that the commissioner had overstepped his bounds. The players then asked U.S. District Judge Helen G. Berrigan to reject the new sanctions, arguing Goodell is biased against them.

The league announced Tagliabue’s appointment as appellate arbitrator on Oct. 19. He will decide whether Goodell’s disciplinary ruling was proper.

Tagliabue served as NFL commissioner from 1989 until 2006, when Goodell replaced him.

The NFL said today that Tagliabue hasn’t represented the league in any matter since returning to Covington & Burling in 2007.

“Commissioner Tagliabue has had no personal involvement in the investigation, arbitration or litigation of the bounty matter,” NFL lawyers said in the filing.

The league said it will be represented by the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP at an appellate hearing for Vilma and the other three players set for Oct. 30.

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

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