In a surprising move considering he NFL’s hard-line stance of the past, the league has offered to reduce New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma year-long suspension to eight games, according to reports, as part of ongoing settlement talks involving the league, the NFL Players Association and legal representatives for the four players who were suspended for their alleged participation in the team’s bounty program from 2009-2011.
The league’s offer was made late last week but it is conditional upon Vilma dropping a civil lawsuit charging commissioner Roger Goodell with defamation of character, sources said to ESPN. Vilma has expressed his strong feelings about his tainted reputation.
The talks could also lead to reductions in the suspensions of the other three players — Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), Green Bay Packers tackle Anthony Hargove (eight games), and the Cleveland Brownlinebacker Scott Fujita (three games).
Settlement talks are expected to continue Monday and sources say that Friday’s next scheduled appearance before U.S. District Court Judge Ginger Berrigan could serve as a soft deadline to reach a settlement. The two sides filed more arguments in the Louisiana court this past Friday in advance of this week’s hearing.
The original hearing was conducted on July 26th as Judge Berrigan was deciding on whether to grant a temporary restraining order on behalf of the four players who were suspended by Goodell.
Berrigan expressed concerns about Goodell’s actions during the first hearing in which seven members of the Saints testified that they never witnessed Vilma offering $10,000 to any teammate who injured opposing quarterbacks Kurt Warner and Brett Favre in the 2009-2010 playoffs. Those who testified also denied there was a pay-to-injure bounty program, including Saints interim head coach Joe Vitt, who will serve his own six-game suspension to open the season.
An NFL investigation found that the New Orleans Saints operated a bounty system rewarding between 22 and 27 players for hard hits and injuring opposing players.
While sources said league attorneys have urged Goodell to offer reductions in the suspensions as a settlement, a league official reiterated Goodell’s position that if the players had participated fully in the appeals process, the commissioner may have reduced the penalties as he has with other players who have been disciplined in other cases. The league official also noted that the current legal proceeding began with a settlement conference.