As the NFL defends against accusations that it long has concealed information regarding the harmful impact concussions have on players’ brains, the League has taken an aggressive tactic in its investigation into the New Orleans Saints’ alleged use of a “bounty” program. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s March 2, 2012, press release alleged that Saints coaches and “defensive players” maintained a “bounty” program that rewarded players for “cart-offs” and “knockouts.”  On the same day, Goodell also disseminated a report to all 32 NFL clubs describing the “bounty” program.  In the club report, he alleged that “prior to a New Orleans Saints playoff game in January, 2010, defensive captain Jonathan Vilma offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked [opposing quarterback Brett] Favre out of the game.”

Now, New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma has filed a defamation lawsuit against Commissioner Goodell in U.S. District Court in New Orleans.  Vilma’s lawsuit accuses Goodell of making “public statements concerning [him] that were false, defamatory and injurious to Vilma’s professional and personal reputation.”  According to Vilma, the contents of the March 2nd press release were reported “by essentially every major news organization in the United States.” 

As to the club report, Vilma maintains that, despite his repeated requests, Goodell has

“never revealed[] any supposed sources purportedly corroborating that a Bounty Program existed [or] that Vilma participated in any such Bounty Program….”

Vilma also points to other press releases and League memoranda disseminated by Goodell relating to the NFL’s investigation, which he claims contain false and defamatory statements.   In a section of the complaint labeled, “The Truth,” Vilma claims he “never established, or assisted in establishing a Bounty Program or any similar program in violation of NFL rules.”  He also states he “never placed $10,000…on any table or anywhere else as part of a Bounty Program….”

Vilma’s complaint alleges claims for slander per se for injury to both his professional and personal reputations, various forms of libel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.  He seeks compensatory and punitive damages for Goodell’s conduct.

Goodell is expected to file motions to dismiss Vilma’s federal court action and limit his legal options to an arbitration forum.

However, if Vilma is able to proceed with his federal court action against Goodell, the discovery process could require Goodell to reveal his sources regarding the Bounty Program and Vilma’s alleged involvement, including potential coaches and current and former NFL players.

The Vilma lawsuit is just the latest twist in the battle between the NFL and its players to address player safety issues.  The NFL has been hit with numerous lawsuits by former players alleging the League concealed information it had regarding the harmful effects  of concussions onplayers’ brains.  We will continue to follow this issue.