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Court Showdown: New Orleans Saints’ Vilma vs. Goodell and NFL

goodellThe story earlier this week smacked of some relief for Saints fans, weary of a long subpoena-loving, brief-writing, lawyer-infested non-football offseason. ESPN, who hasn’t made a glaring mistake since airing the fairy tale of Mickey Loomis and the Bugged Booth, reported a settlement offer that would cut Jonathan Vilma’s suspension from the entire 2012 season to eight games.

 

 

The story, reported by the very reputable and responsible Chris Mortensen, said Vilma could get back half the season if only he agrees to drop the civil lawsuit against Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation of character. Wow, what a deal, we all shouted!

 

But then the NFL throws another flag.  “The report about a settlement offer by the league to Jonathan Vilma is completely inaccurate," NFL VP of Communications Greg Aiello said in a statement released by the league. "No such settlement offer has been made. We will continue to respect the court proceedings on this matter and have no further comment at this time." So that means Vilma will be in federal court on Friday continuing his ill-advised challenge. For those of us who have a working knowledge of how the league operates, this was a bit of a shocker.

 

Mortensen has impeccable sources, most of whom get paid by some branch of the National Football League. But his information regarding Vilma was wrong, at least according to the league.

 

Here’s what I think happened. Mortensen spoke with someone high up in the league hierarchy with knowledge that Vilma’s lawyers were pushing for such a settlement. Although I like and respect Mortensen, I do not believe the league would negotiate away what they obviously believe is a matter that belongs under the umbrella of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. Forget that such a settlement would open the gates for the other suspended individuals to file their own cases. Nobody wants that. The issue is commissioner’s authority, which has been a part of every CBA for the past half-century.

 

Federal Judge Ginger Berrigan should rule that the matter does belong within the realm of a union-management agreement reached after “arm’s length bargaining,” which is legal term meaning the devil did not make the union sign it. Even if Berrigan allows the suit to go forward, Vilma’s claim that Goodell defamed his good name should come under a federal precedent that is taught to every first-year journalism student in America. The probability that a plaintiff will recover damages in a defamation suit depends largely on whether the plaintiff is a public or private figure in the eyes of the law.

 

The law regarding the defamation or libel of a public figure was established in the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan. The plaintiff was a police official who claimed that false allegations about him appeared in the New York Times and sued the newspaper for libel. The Supreme Court held that a public official alleging libel must prove actual malice in order to recover damages.

 

The Court declared that the First Amendment protects open and robust debate on public issues even when such debate includes "vehement, caustic, unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." A public figure who has voluntarily assumed a position in the public eye must prove that defamatory statements were made with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard of whether they were false.

 

Anybody want to debate whether Vilma is a public figure or not? It is a safe bet that Goodell had reason to believe the information he had was accurate. What all that means is that Vilma will have the opportunity to take his medicine, and the fans will finally be rid of these legal shenanigans.

  by Jim Miller


Jim Miller's new book, "Where the Water Kept Rising," is now available in local bookstores and at his website: www.JWMillerSports.com

 

  

 

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