NEW ORLEANS – After Jonathan Vilma and seven witnesses testified Thursday that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell got his facts wrong in the bounty scandal, a federal judge decided against making an immediate ruling on whether the suspended Saints' linebacker could temporarily return to work.
Regardless of the outcome, the hearing gave Vilma and several current and former teammates, as well as Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt, a chance to explain why they believe NFL investigators "misconstrued" evidence gathered in their bounty investigation and incorrectly concluded that the Saints had a program in place that offered cash bonuses for tackles that injured opponents.
"Everything I've worked for has been basically thrown down the toilette," Vilma said when asked about the harm his bounty suspension has done to both his pro career and charitable work that includes building schools in Haiti. "It hurts. It's tough to swallow because it's not who I am."
Vilma has asked U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan to impose a temporary restraining order against the NFL while his lawsuit against Goodell proceeds. Vilma's suit accuses the commissioner of defamation and also asks Berrigan to permanently overturn Goodell's decision to suspend Vilma for the entire 2012 season.
NFL attorneys did not attempt to challenge testimony denying the existence of a bounty program. Rather, they argued the real question in Vilma's case was whether the federal courts had jurisdiction to overturn a process that was collectively bargained. They noted that multiple system arbitrators have already agreed that Goodell has followed the very policies for imposing discipline to which players agreed in the league's labor agreement.
"Mr. Vilma may not like that bargain but it's not for him ... or this court to decide," NFL attorney Gregg Levy argued.
Berrigan did not say when she would rule on the temporary restraining order that Vilma's attorney requested in Thursday's seven-hour hearing. However, she is attempting to fast-track Vilma's lawsuit, along with a separate but parallel lawsuit brought by NFL Players Association on behalf of three other current or former Saints slapped with partial-season suspensions in the bounty matter: Will Smith, Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove.
Berrigan did say she was troubled by some of the NFL's arguments.
She said Goodell's contention that players were being punished for actions that occurred not on the field, but in meeting rooms and locker rooms, "borders on ridiculous," and cited it as one of several examples of "slicing the salami very thin."
Goodell has stated that he has jurisdiction because he is dealing with conduct detrimental to the game, not for on-field infractions that require the use of an arbitrator other than the commissioner.
Vilma attorney Peter Ginsberg said that Goodell violated the CBA by failing to serve as a neutral arbitrator. He said Goodell's bias in the matter was evident in his public comments even before he handed down players' suspensions.
Goodell "is allowed to be commissioner and arbitrator. He is not allowed to pre-judge," Ginsberg said.
Current New Orleans defensive players Roman Harper, Sedrick Ellis, Jonathan Casillas and Scott Shanle testified on Vilma's behalf, along with retired former teammates Troy Evans and Randall Gay.
They denied ever seeing Vilma offer $10,000 cash knocking quarterbacks Brett Favre or Kurt Warner out of the 2009-10 NFC playoffs, as the NFL has said he did.
The witnesses also corroborated Vilma's description of some of the terms that the NFL has highlighted in its report about the bounty program.
They explained that the term "kill the head" means to legally stop a ball carrier's forward progress, to literally turn his body so that his head is facing sideways or backward, and not in the direction the offense was trying to go. They testified the term "whack" described legal hit below the waist in which a ball carrier in the open field has his legs cut out from under him.
A "cart-off," they said, also was a legal hit, albeit one that forced a player to take at least a few plays off to re-gather himself. They described a "knockout" as a high-impact, dramatic and legal hit that did not necessarily result in injury.
They also testified that the pool they were involved in was a pay-for-performance pool that largely rewarded big plays such as forced fumbles, sacks or interceptions, but added that the program also fined players for mental errors or penalties including unnecessary roughness.
Vitt, sometimes pausing with emotion, praised Vilma as one of the finest players he has ever known, and someone as important to New Orleans' defense as record-setting quarterback Drew Brees is to the Saints' offense. Vitt described Vilma as an intelligent, hardworking and unselfish player whose teammates overwhelmingly elected him as defensive captain.
"When these grown men who make a lot of money vote for this man to lead them into critical situations, and make critical calls ... and be there for them in times of need, personally, I think it speaks volumes," Vitt said.
Vilma wants a swift ruling because he is rehabilitating his surgically repaired left knee and said doing so at the Saints' facility is far more productive than doing it on his own. Vitt added that when players rehabilitate injuries at team headquarters, they do so with trainers who have a "personal vested interest" in the player's health.
Despite not getting an immediate temporary restraining order allowing him to rejoin the Saints, Vilma appeared to be in good spirits as he left court.
"In a perfect world, that would have happened, but there's a lot for the judge to go over right now and I'm definitely not going to try to rush her," Vilma said. "I hope she gets it right and I hope it's in my favor."