The battle between Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma and Commissioner Roger Goodell has expanded to a new front, with the two sides sharply disagreeing as to whether the NFL has given Vilma evidence to support the accusations that he funded a bounty system in New Orleans.
On Thursday, Vilma explained to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network that Vilma declined a chance to meet with the Commissioner before discipline was imposed because the league office refused to share evidence of guilt with Vilma. In response, NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said that evidence was indeed provided.
“[Vilma] was invited to come in with his attorney to discuss the evidence prior to any decision on discipline,” Aiello said. “He declined. He has another opportunity to do so in his appeal. The union has been shown evidence.”
Vilma’s lawyer disagrees. “Mr. Aiello clearly has not been allowed to participate in the process,” Peter Ginsberg tells PFT via email. “We were invited in but explicitly told that the Commissioner had no obligation to allow us to view the supposed ‘evidence’ and that the Commissioner would not be showing us the ‘evidence.’ And, in fact, the Commissioner has not provided us with any evidence.”
There’s not much middle ground between those two positions.
From Vilma’s perspective, as explained during Friday’s PFT Live, he’s undoubtedly reluctant to submit to a process in which the folks with whom he’s meeting already have made up their minds, and in turn are simply looking to carve out from the face-to-face session evidence of guilt, ignoring any evidence of innocence. If Vilma doesn’t know what the evidence against him is, Vilma doesn’t know anything about what others have said about him, and in turn he has no opportunity to properly respond.
More importantly, any misstatement or misunderstanding from Vilma can fuel a determination that Vilma’s version conflicts with some other player’s or coach’s statement. If the NFL chooses to believe the person whose version contradicts Vilma’s, the NFL can then conclude that Vilma is lying — and thus guilty.
That’s why Vilma and the other suspended players are trying to steer the appeals process away from Goodell. Ultimately, they want someone with a truly open mind to hear all the evidence and make a decision based not on P.R. or litigation management but simply on the question of whether these men funded or otherwise participated in a system that paid money to players who inflicted injury on their opponents.