There’s nothing like a looming court date to make parties serious about working out their differences on their own.
With Judge Helen G. Berrigan posing questions during a July 26 hearing that suggested she may be leaning toward lifting linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s suspension — and possibly overturning all of the suspensions later — the league reportedly has offered a middle ground. According to Ed Werder, Adam Schefter, and Chris Mortensen of ESPN.com (what, did they take turn typing the letters?), the NFL has offered to reduce Vilma’s suspension to eight games.
Though Steve Wyche of NFL Network said on NFLAM said that no specific offer has been made, the report comes at a time when it makes sense to be talking about possible alternatives to a court-ordered outcome.
The report also comes in the wake of a report by Jason Cole of Yahoo! Sports that, if the NFLPA had cooperated with the league’s process, Vilma may have ultimately been suspended only four games. Setting aside for now the serious disconnect between legal gamesmanship and the notion of doing the right thing, the leak to Cole may have laid the foundation for the news of what could be characterized as backpedaling by the league office.
Indeed, that’s the obvious initial reaction to the report from Werdscheftenson. The league by all appearances has blinked. Coupled with Cole’s report, the spin could be that the NFL is simply trying to finish this thing where it would have ended if Vilma hadn’t refused to participate in the process.
When Commissioner Roger Goodell hammered Vilma et al., we suggested at some point the possibility that Goodell deliberately overshot with the penalties so that he could prove the appeal process works — even if it makes him look wishy-washy for second-guessing his initial decision. Vilma prevented that from happening by refusing to throw himself on the mercy of what the players regard as a kangaroo court.
Of course, no offer to reduce the penalties may matter. Vilma and the other players continue to believe that they did nothing wrong. More specifically, they believe there were no bounties. They concede there was a pay-for-performance system, and the league still hasn’t made it clear that the penalties flow primarily from offering cash for applying clean, legal hits in a way that prevents an opponent from continuing. (For example, the Sunday night hit by defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis on Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb would have been regarded as a “knockout” in a regular-season game, even though Ellis broke no rules in dragging Kolb down.)
Once the two sides start speaking the same language, maybe they can find a middle ground. For now, our guess is that Vilma and the players will regard the offer as a sign of weakness, and that they’ll keep pushing for a court order scuttling all of the suspensions — or at a minimum requiring the parties to appoint a neutral arbitrator.