Unlike the suspensions imposed against various non-players involved in the Saints’ bounty system, each of whom admitted to their involvement, it’s impossible to assess whether the punishment of the current and former Saints players is fair without knowing whether the players are indeed guilty. The NFL thinks they are, and the NFLPA’s various comments strongly suggest that the players contend they aren’t.
Linebacker Jonathan Vilma because the first player to deny any involvement whatsoever in the bounty program via a statement issued Wednesday afternoon. It was strong and clear and forceful.
And exactly two months late.
Vilma’s name first emerged on March 2, via the “confidential” NFL Security memo that explained he offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked former Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC title game. So why did it take Vilma two months to respond?
It’s possible that Vilma was advised by his lawyer or by the NFLPA to say nothing while the decision on discipline was pending, but is that how truly innocent people behave? Most would say that someone wrongfully accused of misconduct would shout his innocence from the proverbial rooftops, welcoming any opportunity to prove that he isn’t guilty.
Instead, Vilma and the three other players declined an opportunity to meet with the Commissioner to persuade him face-to-face that they did nothing wrong.
That doesn’t mean we believe Vilma is guilty as charged. But his strong and clear and forceful statement would have been far more convincing on March 2 than on May 2.
Moreover, it’s possible that Vilma’s statement was carefully crafted to provide a safe harbor. He says that he “never paid, or intended to pay” $10,000 to anyone who knocked Warner or Favre or anyone else out of a game. Vilma doesn’t deny making the offer, perhaps as some sort of mechanism for getting his teammates appropriately “fired up” for the playoff games. If Vilma is entirely and completely innocent, common sense says that his statement would have used the phrase “never paid, or offered to pay” the money.
We’ll nevertheless continue to keep an open mind, and we hope that the evidence from both sides eventually will be available for public scrutiny. There’s simply no way of knowing who’s right and who’s wrong on this one without having some opportunity to objectively scrutinize the proof, or lack of it.