METAIRIE, La. — Both Saints defensive leaders Jonathan Vilma and Will Smith are happy they won’t spend the rest of the year and offseason worrying about the possibility of having to serve a suspension.
But while Smith is relieved that this chapter has come to a close, Vilma’s not finished yet.
The Saints linebacker said his defamation lawsuit against NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will continue because his reputation has still been damaged through the affair regardless of whether the penalties were vacated or not.
“The only thing you hear about when you mention Jonathan is bounty – either he did it or he didn’t do it,” Vilma said. “Some people believe me, some people don’t regardless of the outcome. This is what lingers from, for a lack of a better word, a messed up situation for what Goodell did. That right there is what I’ll look to handle off the field.”
Meanwhile, at a special league meeting in Dallas on Wednesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said he wouldn’t apologize to the players for the investigation and for the subsequent penalties he issued.
Standing by his findings that the Saints ran the bounty program, Goodell said, “People made judgments and none of them should be feeling very good about those judgments. To have a bounty program where you’re targeting players for injury is completely unacceptable in the NFL, and it is clear that occurred for three years despite all of the denials.”
In addition to Vilma and Smith, former Saints defensive players Scott Fujita and Anthony Hargrove both had their penalties tossed by Tagliabue.
In his 22-page report released Tuesday, the former commissioner put the onus on the coaches for creating and running the program. But he only exonerated Fujita, placing blame on the other three for participating in the program in some fashion.
He found, however, that Goodell’s penalties were too harsh and were far from any previous precedent set by the league in cases or instances similar to the bounty situation.
Vilma, whose season-long suspension was vacated, was named in the report as having participated in the program that took place between 2009 and 2011, the three seasons coinciding with the tenure of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
Vilma said he isn’t surprised that Tagliabue didn’t completely clear him, citing the role of the former commissioner’s law office in representing Goodell in the defamation lawsuit he still has pending.
“It wouldn’t look good if he exonerated me and cleared me of everything saying this was all BS and I turn back around and move forward with my defamation case,” Vilma said. “It was one of those situations where I think he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He knew the evidence wasn’t there. He knew that this was a botched investigation. At the same time, he has to still protect his client.”
When asked if there some “CYA” going on in Tagliabue’s report in regard to his agreeing about the bounty program, Vilma said no.
“I think for him, honestly, it’s smart business,” Vilma said. “It may look bad for Goodell and the situation in the NFL right now having rushed the decisions and affected people’s lives and careers. AT the same time, he may be protecting Goodell from something more serious.”
Smith, too, believes he was defamed. In the end, though, he was happy with how the entire process worked itself out, even if it took nearly three quarters of the year.
“The biggest thing I was happy with was this whole process,” the defensive end said. “At the end of the day, it came out to be fair. Even though I didn’t like the wording in his ruling, I was happy that I wasn’t suspended for any games and I was happy that we were able to have this type of proceeding. It was truly an unbiased opportunity.”
Smith was originally suspended four games. In September an appeals panel overturned Goodell’s original judgment and sent it back to the commissioner, who didn’t change the initial suspension.
Still, Smith didn’t harsh words for Goodell.
“I don’t have anything negative to say about Goodell,” Smith said. “Whatever information he received from whoever he received it from, obviously was false. He may have overreacted, but he has a tough job. He has to make tough decisions and tough rulings at times, so I don’t have anything to say to the commissioner.”
Smith denied once again that he didn’t participate in a bounty program.
“The only thing that was going on was a pay-for-performance that pretty much every other team in the league has and have had for years,” Smith said. “That was it, I never participate in a bounty or put money down to injure another player or encourage other guys to injure other players.”