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Jeff Schultz: Goodell appears unfazed by Vilma’s lawsuit

By Jeff Schultz, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution –

ATLANTA — Troy Vincent heard it from coaches since his days in youth football.

“Tough it out! Get up! Suck it up!’ — but those days are over,” the former NFL safety said Tuesday. “Was that the right thing to do? No. But that’s the way we were taught.”

The NFL, facing player-safety issues and a blur of concussion-litigation lawsuits, potentially could be on the verge of sweeping changes. But the biggest obstacle may be changing mindsets. Players, coaches and owners are driven to win, CAT-scans and EEGs be damned. This is a $9 billion league. A team’s season: 16 games. Evidence of possible post-career brain damage notwithstanding, does anybody really believe a player is not going to stumble back to the huddle even if he feels a little loopy?

Does it seem fathomable that players, not the most stable bunch when it comes to job security, would be willing to sit out games?

“That’s the progression,” said Vincent, who now works as the NFL’s vice president of player engagement. “It’s the right thing to do. I think players realize what’s at stake.”

The NFL held its spring meetings in Atlanta on Tuesday. Player safety stirred most of the discussion. Not surprising. It’s a topic that resonates in most NFL cities, with the notable exception of New Orleans. The Saints are still playing the victim card in “BountyGate.”

New Orleans players believe they’re being railroaded. But with every new whine, they’re morphing into a bigger clown act – and Jonathan Vilma is driving the proverbial overstuffed Volkswagen.

Late last week, “Jonathan Vilma vs. Roger Goodell” was filed in U.S. District Court in Louisiana. Among the amusing claims in Vilma’s libel and defamation suit: “Goodell had no reasonable grounds for believing the truth of his statements. Goodell relied on, at best, hearsay, circumstantial evidence and lies in making the statements.”

The result of these false claims, Vilma said, is that the “media will forever mention his name in the context of the bounty investigation and fans will forever remember Vilma with ill repute rather than remember his substantial accomplishments on and off the field.”

Sorry. I had to laugh at the thought of Vilma sitting on a witness stand, denying he was someone of “ill repute.”

Michael McCann, director of the Sports Institute at Vermont Law School, could not recall a similar case of an athlete suing a commissioner. He said it’s “less than 50 percent” that the case will make it to the courtroom. The collective bargaining agreement may preclude a player from suing the commissioner.

“If it’s not thrown out, it will be interesting to watch,” McCann said. “It’s almost imaginary.”

Truly surreal is the Saints’ and the NFLPA’s reaction to all this. At a time when player safety is the No. 1 agenda item and the belief exists that post-career brain damage may be leading to suicides, the union is complaining about even trivial matters like players having to wear thigh and knee pads again. And suing Goodell?

Perspective, people.

“I don’t expect that everyone is going to agree all the time, particularly when it involves discipline,” Goodell said. “That’s not (my) objective.”

He would not comment directly on Vilma’s lawsuit, nor would he say whether he believed the CBA allowed a player to sue him. But he said the league would release more evidence of the Saints’ bounty program in the future, beyond the statement of facts that was released in March.

Goodell was asked if the criticism hurt him. He smiled and said no.

Does he second-guess himself?

“Sure, but that’s what an appeals process is for,” he said. “You want to hear what the players have to say. I invited them to come in, but they decided not to, at the NFLPA’s suggestion.”

Vincent played 15 seasons, went to five Pro Bowls and was named the NFL’s Man of the Year. Credibility is not an issue. Asked if he ever considered suing a commissioner, he responded, “I didn’t know we could do that.”

His reaction to Vilma’s suit?

“I read about it, and I was just like: When is this going to end?” he said. “When are we going to get back to the real issues?”

It’s a good question, one that Vilma and the Saints need to think about.

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