We all knew the Saints bounty scandal would lead to a lawsuit or two, but few expected New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma to sue NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for defamation. The suspended player filed suit in federal court on Thursday in what appears to be a last-ditch effort to protect his reputation.
Goodell, the suit claims, made repeated and public accusations connecting Vilma to the bounty program. But Vilma says none of the allegations are true.
No one knows where Goodell received his information, but he's been adamant about Vilma's involvement from the start. In the initial press release, he alleged that Saints coaches and defensive players contributed to a pool and received cash payments for knocking out opposing players. Vilma, a defensive player, believes this statement defamed him by implication.
And then there was a report issued to all 32 NFL teams saying that the Saints defensive team "targeted particular players." Goodell also specifically pointed to Jon Vilma, who allegedly offered $10,000 in cash to any player who knocked Brett Favre out of a 2010 playoff game.
Vilma's complaint says these allegations have often been repeated by Goodell.
Defamation is a bit more difficult to prove if you happen to be a public person or celebrity. If you or I were defamed, we'd only need to show that the defendant disseminated a false statement that caused us injury. But because Jon Vilma is a well-known professional athlete, he needs to prove that Goodell knew his statements were false or that he recklessly disregarded the truth.
The U.S. Supreme Court has imposed this higher burden on public officials and persons in a bid to protect First Amendment freedoms.
The outcome of Jon Vilma's Goodell defamation suit will ultimately depend on this extra factor. If Goodell made up the allegations or didn't properly investigate, then he'll be on the hook for damages.