«FINAL DECISION ON APPEAL INTRODUCTION AND SUMMARY The matter before me involves appeals by four present or former New Orleans Saints’ players who ...»
Commissioner Goodell suspended Jonathan Vilma based on his findings that Vilma had contributed to the Program and that he also placed a bounty on Brett Favre prior to the Saints’ NFC Championship game against the Minnesota Vikings.
There is no dispute with regard to Vilma’s participation in and contributions to the Program. With regard to the alleged bounty, the record on appeal is sharply contested, with witnesses pro and con testifying confidently and with evident contempt for the contrary testimony of other witnesses.
Having reviewed the testimony very carefully, including documentary evidence that is at the center of the conflict, and having assessed the credibility of the four central witnesses on these matters (two of whom had not been subject to cross-examination in Commissioner Goodell’s proceedings or in federal court), I find there is more than enough evidence to support Commissioner Goodell’s findings that Mr. Vilma offered such a bounty.
The sharply conflicting evidence and testimony on the record regarding the alleged bounty on Favre can readily be summarized. Coaches Williams and Cerullo were both present at the contested meeting. Both provided sworn declarations before Commissioner Goodell and sworn testimony before me that Vilma offered a $10,000 bounty on Favre. Their declarations and testimony are consistent and unequivocal that Vilma made such an offer. While certain details were not entirely consistent, the accounts were consistent as to the circumstances under which the pledge occurred, the amount of the pledge, and the frenzy of pledging activity by other individuals in the meeting that ensued thereafter. Both agreed that Vilma addressed the Saints’ defense at its meeting the night prior to the NFC Championship Game. Both agreed that Vilma’s offer was for $10,000, but neither could confirm that Vilma actually had any money on his person when he made the offer. Both also argued that Vilma’s offer set off a chain reaction of pledges by others at the meeting, which included other offers of a bounty on Favre as well as pledges to reward specific types of plays.
Cerullo admitted that his notes reflecting the alleged bounty placed by Vilma, as well as by other players and people in the meeting, were at least partially inaccurate. But these notes, regardless of the circumstances of their preparation, provide some contemporaneous corroborating evidence of both the nature of the meeting and the alleged $10,000 bounty pledged by Vilma.
Williams strongly confirmed and supplemented an earlier sworn declaration submitted to Commissioner Goodell, testifying in no uncertain terms that Vilma placed the bounty. Yet Williams simultaneously asserted that he, Williams, was to blame because he was in charge of the defensive team meeting and should not have allowed Vilma to make an impromptu speech without first vetting it, especially given that Williams carefully planned these meetings to avoid surprises. Nonetheless, Williams maintained that Vilma offered the bounty on Favre while repeatedly testifying against his own interest, including testifying that he himself offered a $5,000 bounty on Favre, which he later privately informed a Saints’ staff person who attended the meeting should be considered withdrawn. (Hr’g Tr. at 1095:6-16.) Williams’s testimony that he pledged his own bounty on Favre, and that other players may also have done so, is reinforced by his testimony that he carefully orchestrated team meetings. He emphasized that he and other coaches did not wish to have a dynamic that allowed players to make significant remarks at team meetings without previously lining up support for the remarks from coaches and other players.
Coach Williams’ testimony was balanced in identifying concrete circumstances clearly relevant to the nature of Vilma’s bounty offer and its impact - - or lack of impact - - on his teammates in the meeting room. Williams testified, for example, that he had often previously expressed the view that it was acceptable to strive to knock opposing players out of games to gain the competitive advantage of playing against “backups” rather than starters - - a point that Vilma himself confirmed. (Hr’g Tr. 1919:14-1921:6.) Williams’ own bounty pledge shortly after Vilma spoke certainly must be viewed as encouraging and condoning Vilma’s actions.
Although Williams subsequently concluded that his offer was wrong and privately advised a Saints’ staff member that he retracted the offer, he never advised either Vilma or the other defensive players that his offer had been so wrong that he immediately retracted it. (Hr’g Tr.
1205:3-1206:15.) Perhaps most telling, in spite of Williams’s undisputed need to control every aspect of the defensive team meetings, he admitted that he let the Minnesota “meeting room get out of control.” (Hr’g Tr. 1074:1-24.) It is important also to note that though Williams admitted to NFL investigators in February 2012 that he had offered a $5,000 bounty on Brett Favre, there is no evidence that he was specifically disciplined for having done so.
In opposition to the testimony of Williams and Cerullo, Vilma and Coach Vitt both unequivocally testified in the hearing (and in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana) that Vilma either did not place a bounty on Favre or that they could not recall such a bounty.
However, Vitt admitted to NFL investigators in 2012 that he “fabricated the truth” when he spoke to an NFL investigator in March 2010 about whether there had been a bounty on Favre.
He later claimed that his admitted fabrication was just “stretching the truth” because he failed to describe for investigators the emotionalism of the defensive team meeting the night before the NFC Championship Game. As a result of Vitt’s admissions and conflicting testimonies, I find that any attribution made by him cannot be given particular weight.
Vilma’s version of events on the night before the Vikings game has been conflicting. He told Commissioner Goodell in September 2012 that: (1) players at the meeting did not pledge “any money at all” to the Program; and (2) he was “more than sure” that others present at the meeting did not pledge additional amounts to the Program; and (3) he did not “recall well enough if this whole thing got out of hand and everybody was pledging money.” He testified in the appeals hearing, however, that he “might have” made pledges for the Program and that it is now “very possible” that other players made pledges during the meeting.
Evaluating the totality of the evidence, there is an insufficient basis to reject Commissioner Goodell’s findings on the offer of the Favre bounty. Commissioner Goodell met with the four principal witnesses in person and made a judgment that Williams and Cerullo were credible witnesses to the alleged bounty offered by Vilma. In the appeal hearings, despite various inconsistencies illustrated in the cross examination of Williams and Cerullo, neither witness was shown to be not credible on the specific issue of whether Vilma offered a bounty on Favre.
Accordingly, I affirm Commissioner Goodell’s findings with regard to Jonathan Vilma.
It is essential to recognize that Vilma is being most severely disciplined for “talk” or speech at a team meeting on the evening before the Saints-Vikings game. He is not being punished for his performance on the field and, indeed, none of the discipline of any player here relates to on-field conduct. No Saints’ player was suspended for on-field play by the League after the game in question. If the League wishes to suspend a player for pre-game talk including “offers” to incentivize misconduct, it must start by imposing enhanced discipline for illegal hits that involve the kind of player misconduct that it desires to interdict. The relationship of the discipline for the off-field “talk” and actual on-field conduct must be carefully calibrated and reasonably apportioned. This is a standard grounded in common sense and fairness. It rests also on the competence of NFL officiating and the obligation and ability of the League to closely observe playing field misconduct, record it and review for illegal hits or other related misconduct.
When NFL players are facing the biggest game in their careers (a Conference Championship game where a victory puts them in the Super Bowl), they are working extraordinarily hard, they are under exceptional pressure - - from within and from outside - - and each day may bring changes of emotion, changes of perspective and changes of “talk.” Here, Coach Vitt credibly testified that in one team meeting before the Saints-Vikings game, there were no words spoken at all for an hour, just silence as the players pondered the enormity of their opportunity and their challenge. Obviously other team meetings gave way to a completely different dynamic as in the pre-Vikings game meeting at issue here.
If one were to punish certain off-field talk in locker rooms, meeting rooms, hotel rooms or elsewhere without applying a rigorous standard that separated real threats or “bounties” from rhetoric and exaggeration, it would open a field of inquiry that would lead nowhere.
More specifically, there is no question that Coach Williams and other coaches orchestrated the Program to incentivize cart-offs and knockouts; carefully choreographed defensive team meetings, including presenting graphic slide presentations showing injuries to opposing players; ensured that any player who would speak at team meetings was adequately prepared or supported; and generally created an atmosphere in the 2009 season and playoffs that suggested to Saints’ players that offering a $10,000 bounty to injure an opposing player was permissible behavior. Williams established that $1000 was an acceptable reward for a cart-off in the Program during the regular season. It is undisputed that the amounts increased during the playoffs. Given the overall mentality and messages carefully crafted by Williams, as well as the emotion of a game as important to the Saints as was the January 2010 NFC Championship, it is realistic to believe that the number and amounts of any rewards offered during that defensive team meeting could have escalated dramatically.
Adding to the complexity, there is little evidence of the tone of any talk about a bounty before the Vikings game. Was any bounty pledged serious? Was it inspirational only? Was it typical “trash talk” that occurs regularly before and during games? The parties presented no clear answers. No witness could confirm whether Vilma had any money in his hands as he spoke; no evidence was presented that $10,000 was available to him for purposes of paying a bounty or otherwise. There was no evidence that Vilma or anyone else paid any money to any player for any bounty-related hit on an opposing player in the Vikings game.
I neither excuse nor condone the alleged offer of a bounty on Favre, whether offered by any player, coach, other Saints’ employee or third party. Such conduct has no place in the game of professional football. I cannot, however, uphold a multi-game suspension where there is no evidence that a player’s speech prior to a game was actually a factor causing misconduct on the playing field and that such misconduct was severe enough in itself to warrant a player suspension or a very substantial fine. Nor can I find justified a suspension where Williams and other Saints’ personnel so carefully crafted an environment that would encourage and allow a player to make such an ill-advised and imprudent offer. I therefore vacate the suspension of Jonathan Vilma.
CONCLUSIONS AND ORDER
For the reasons set forth in this Final Decision on Appeal, I affirm the factual findings of Commissioner Goodell; I conclude that Hargrove, Smith, and Vilma engaged in “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football”; and I vacate all player discipline.