NEW ORLEANS (CN) – Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma sued the NFL in Federal Court, claiming it used an unfair process to suspend him for a year on charges, unsubstantiated by evidence, that he participated in a “bounty” program aimed at injuring opponents.
In more off-season drama for the Saints, its suspended head coach, Sean Payton, filed for divorce from his wife of 19 years, in Fort Worth, Texas.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld Vilma’s yearlong suspension last week.
In his federal complaint, filed June 30, Vilma claims the NFL breached its collective bargaining agreement. Vilma, a defensive captain, claims that Goodell failed to provide a fair arbitration or appeal process, refused to timely share evidence, denied Vilma his own witnesses, and failed to provide any witnesses with firsthand knowledge of the alleged bounty program.
“Goodell made it clear from the start of the appeal hearing that he would serve as the ‘hearing officer’ despite his many public statements in which he provided his own conclusions well in advance of hearing the players’ information, despite his many public statements attempting to justify and rationalize the punishments in the weeks prior to the appeal hearing and despite the fact that he had been identified as a witness for the hearing,” Vilma says in his 28-page complaint.
“The record of Vilma’s hearing was closed without the introduction of any evidence, testimony of any witnesses, or supplementing the record other than with Vilma’s motion to preclude and an oral statement from Vilma’s representative,” it states.
The NFL said in March that an investigation had found that Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and at least 22 Saints players pooled money to pay bonuses for hard hits and for deliberately injuring opponents.
Goodell released statements accusing Vilma of holding up $10,000 during a team meeting and offering it to any player who took Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009 NFC Championship Game, according to Vilma’s lawsuit.
Goodell claimed the bounty program was in place from 2009 to 2011, and that with Vilma was one of the ringleaders. Payton was aware of the bounty program but did nothing to shut it down, the NFL said.
Williams was suspended indefinitely, Payton was suspended for one year, and Vilma was suspended for the entire 2012 season. Other Saints received lesser suspensions.
But Vilma says he never offered a bounty for Favre or any other opponent, and that the NFL mischaracterized evidence to support its claims against him and other Saints.
“The NFL’s alteration of other documents evidences that the NFL cannot substantiate the suspension, and undermines the integrity of the process, as well as the integrity of the NFL and the Commissioner’s Office,” the complaint states.
Vilma claims that Goodell’s failure to rule on his appeal threatened his career and professional standing.
“Vilma’s personal and professional life has come to a standstill while he focuses his attention on rectifying the wrongs that have been done to him by the NFL and Goodell,” the complaint states.
The lawsuit, filed before Goodell affirmed the suspension, seeks immediate injunctive relief vacating the suspension and allowing Vilma to play. Vilma claims an injury he suffered in 2011 could expose him to serious harm if he is not allowed to train with the Saints and have access to the fitness staff.
He is represented by Peter Ginsberg and Conrad Williams, of New Orleans.
Meanwhile, coach Sean Payton, who married on July 11, 1992, filed for divorce in Tarrant County, Fort Worth, where his family moved in 2011.
The petition was filed on June 14 under the initials “PSP” for Payton and “BAP” for his wife, Beth Payton.
“The marriage has become insupportable because of discord or conflict of personalities between Petitioner and Respondent that destroys the legitimate ends of the relationship and prevents any reasonable expectation of reconciliation,” the petition states.
Payton asks for joint custody of the two children and that the marital property be divided of court.
In her counter-petition, Beth Payton seeks the exclusive right to determine the children’s residence.
Sean Payton is represented by Gary Nickelson in Fort Worth.
His wife is represented by Heather King, of Southlake, Texas.