“Victory is mine!!!! – Stewie Griffin”

This was the tweet posted by Jonathan Vilma on Friday afternoon after a collective bargaining agreement appeals panel overturned the NFL’s decision to suspend him and three other players embroiled in the ‘bounty’ saga. It is perhaps the biggest hit that Vilma has ever landed in his career, and Roger Goodell is the recipient of the blow.

The practicalities of the decision are as follows. The suspensions levied against Vilma (one season), Anthony Hargrove (eight games), Will Smith (four games) and Scott Fujita (three games) are vacated with immediate effect. However, the option remains open for Goodell to re-suspend these four players if he can produce evidence of an intent to injure on their part.

This decision has significantly damaged Goodell’s authority. Up until now, Goodell has played the role of judge, jury and executioner and there was little sympathy for the players as this is essentially something that was collectively bargained for. Goodell’s approach to the bounty saga conveyed omnipotence. He suspended all those involved on the basis of evidence that he would not disclose. The ‘just trust me’ approach has been attributed to a desire to not publicly name the whistle-blowers that brought the bounty programme to the commissioner’s attention. It also conveniently masks any potential deficiencies in their evidence.

Cynics, including Jonathan Vilma, suggested instead that Goodell had no evidence at all. We would not need to look too far for a motive to support this theory. As was pointed out in my previous article, “Bounty on the Saints is good for business”, there is a storm gathering momentum on the horizon in the form of concussion issues and lawsuits. The NFL desperately needs to send a message to potential judges and juries that they take the health and wellbeing of their players seriously. The Saints were, consequently, a straw man constructed for this purpose.

The initial appeal of Goodell’s decision was heard by the all-powerful commissioner himself. This meant that, incredibly, the burden was shifted to the players to disprove evidence that they had not been presented with in the first place. It was a sham, and it was always destined for failure.

Sean Payton, Mickey Loomis and Joe Vitt all accepted their punishments and did not pursue the matter further. This acquiescence was taken by many to be an admission of guilt, and a confirmation of the details of the story. Conversely, it can be seen as a reluctant acknowledgment of their fate under the dictatorship of Roger Goodell. We can draw a parallel here to the Lance Armstrong v USADA debate.

Jonathan Vilma, however, could not accept this fate. His suspension for a full season was significantly greater than that given to any other player. Subsequently, he became the face of the bounty saga along with Gregg Williams. His only recourse was civil action. The NFL knew that they needed to resolve this situation quickly before their position was undermined. On 16th August, in Oggy’s Quick Slants, I wrote:

“Vilma has reportedly refused a settlement offer from the NFL that would have resulted in a significant reduction to his one-year suspension. Vilma appears to be motivated by principle more than personal gain. For the league, it is a headache that they could certainly do without.”

The NFL was understandably quick to deny the reported settlement offer, but they would have known then that the writing was on the wall. Prior to Friday’s ruling, Vilma was out for the entire season; now, he can technically start this afternoon. A knee injury will likely prevent his appearance in the Saints’ opener, but the theoretical possibility of Vilma playing is humiliating enough for Goodell.

To mix sporting metaphors, the ball is now in Goodell’s court. It is unfathomable to think that the NFL will not respond to this ruling. But this will mean that the burden is, rightfully, back on the commissioner. His hand has been forced and he will have to reveal his evidence. This evidence, in turn, will be judged by the court of public opinion, (as well as a court of law if necessary). Most importantly, the NFL thought that they had drawn a line under this entire issue. They had made their statement, and it appeared to be irrefutable. This statement has now been erased. Goodell’s next step is a pivotal one, but the reality is that he is in a no-win situation. His power has been called into question and ultimately diluted. The league’s credibility has been compromised. All this before the Saints even kick off their season.


Oggy’s Quick Slants

–       Of the previously suspended players, Will Smith is the most likely to play today. His presence would bolster the Saints defense as they look to contain RGIII on his NFL debut;

–       The Jets have won their last five games against the Bills. Today’s game is crucial, as a defeat could plausibly start a run that leaves the Jets at 1-4 in Week 6 when the Colts come to town. Tebow time, anyone?