As the legal briefs continue to fly in to federal court in Louisiana, careful inspection of the documents reveals all sorts of interesting things.
Here’s the latest, and it’s a doozy.
Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma contends in an October 18 filing that the NFL has refused to produce former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams or former Saints assistant Mike Cerullo for testimony at the October 23 appeal hearing before Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The league likewise refused to produce either witness during the first appeal hearing in June. That time, however, the NFL wasn’t hinging so much of its case against Vilma on sworn statements from Williams and Cerullo. (Indeed, in June, the NFL staunchly was refusing to even disclose Cerullo as a witness.)
This time, there’s no way Vilma can get a fair hearing without a chance to question the two men on whose word the NFL is heavily relying in suspending Vilma. Their sworn statements give rise to plenty of questions that need to be asked, including topics such as whether and to what extent Williams’ ability to return to the NFL (or to attend games while supposedly “banned” from pro football) hinged on signing the sworn statement, whether Williams or someone else wrote the statement, whether Williams if he didn’t write the statement fully agrees with every word of it, whether the money that Vilma allegedly offered belonged to Vilma or someone else (rumors persist in league circles that it may have been Williams money).
As to Cerullo, there are real questions about his alleged desire to take revenge against the Saints for firing him after the 2009 season. There’s no way to assess his potential bias without asking him questions about the circumstances surrounding his termination — and whether he said things at the time like, for example, “I’ll get Joe Vitt for this,” or words to that effect.
As to both men, their respective statements contain a rather significant discrepancy. Cerullo says the money offered by Vilma was given to Williams. Williams says he never received it. How can the league accept the word of both men as the Gospel truth when there’s such a strong discrepancy on such a key point?
For Vilma to not receive a chance to question Williams and Cerullo makes a mockery of the process. The NFL surely will seek refuge in the “it’s not a court proceeding” mantra. But the league can’t have it both ways. Using sworn statements makes it enough like a court proceeding to compel the witnesses to answer questions under oath. It’s simply unfair to base suspensions on written testimony without giving the person whose livelihood and reputation is affected adversely by the outcome to ask questions of the persons who signed their names to the documents.
Thus, Judge Helen Berrigan should give the NFL a choice: Make the witnesses available, or rescind the suspension of Vilma.
In a case that has been at times maddeningly complicated, this is by far the simplest aspect of it. Without a chance to confront and question Williams and Cerullo, Vilma can’t fairly be punished.
UPDATE 12:50 p.m. ET: The NFL says a final decision regarding the parameters of the appeal hearing has not been made.