A federal judge questioned the fairness of the NFL's bounty investigation of the Saints, then held off on making any rulings while urging all sides to settle the matter on their own.
U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan also said the season-long suspension of Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma was excessive and that she would be inclined to rule in his favour if she were certain she had jurisdiction to do so.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has justified his suspension of Vilma by describing him as one of the ringleaders of a program that offered Saints defenders improper cash bonuses for injuring opponents.
The judge could potentially rule at any time on Vilma's request to be allowed to temporarily return to the Saints while the case proceeds, but during Friday's hearing, Berrigan urged all parties to come to an agreement rather than wait for the court to make a decision.
"I was surprised by her candour," said Gabe Feldman, a sports law professor at Tulane University who sat in on the hearing.
Feldman said the judge clearly believed the NFL was "in the wrong."
"The big issue is whether she has the power to do anything," Feldman said.
When Vilma left the courthouse, he was greeted by a handful of Saints fans wearing black and gold jerseys and quarterback Drew Brees, who gave his teammate a hug and pat on the back. Brees had just flown in from Foxborough, Mass., after last night's preseason game against the New England Patriots but he said he didn't want to miss the opportunity to "support Jonathan Vilma."
"It really means a lot," Vilma told his teammate as the two shook hands.
Vilma said he thought Friday's hearing went as well as could be expected and would not comment on whether he was in settlement negotiations with the NFL.
"I didn't come with any expectations," he said. "I thought today went as smoothly as it could. That's all I can ask for."
Vilma, several teammates and Saints assistant head coach Joe Vitt have testified that Vilma never paid or accepted money for injuring another player.
Vilma was one of four current or former players who have been suspended in connection with the league's bounty probe of the Saints. Teammate Will Smith, a defensive end, got four games, while defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove, now with Green Bay, was docked eight games. Linebacker Scott Fujita, now with Cleveland, was suspended for three games.
Smith, Hargrove and Fujita are being represented by the NFL Players Association, which also has filed suit in federal court in New Orleans seeking to have the suspensions overturned.
The NFL has urged Berrigan to dismiss the case, saying it would set a precedent that would clog the courts with frivolous lawsuits by players refusing to accept the disciplinary process to which their union agreed in the league's collective bargaining agreement.
Attorneys for Vilma and the NFLPA, however, have sought to persuade Berrigan that this is a somewhat unique case in which the commissioner overstepped his authority, giving her the power to protect the players' fundamental due process rights.
"You are not a potted plant, an innocent bystander helpless to right this wrong," NFLPA attorney Jeffrey Kessler told the judge.
Vilma's attorneys have argued that Goodell made biased public statements about the linebacker's involvement in the bounty scandal well before the process of player discipline began, making it impossible for the commissioner to be an impartial arbitrator as called for in both the NFL's collective bargaining agreement and federal labour law.
Vilma also is suing Goodell individually for defamation.
The players union also is arguing that Goodell did not have jurisdiction to appoint himself the arbitrator in the bounty matter because the accusations included on-the-field activity that, under the league's labour deal, is supposed to involve an arbitrator other than the commissioner.
The union further stressed that the CBA does not allow suspensions as punishment for pay-for-performance pools for big plays, the only improper activity to which current or former members of the Saints have admitted publicly or under oath. Berrigan took note of that argument, saying it was news to her
Both Vilma and the union have argued that the NFL has failed to turn over all of the evidence required in the matter, noting that the league has disclosed only about 200 pages of the nearly 50,000 pages of documents it claimed to have compiled in the bounty investigation.
While the NFL stands by its findings, league attorneys have not challenged testimony by Vilma and other witnesses in federal court who have denied the existence of pay-to-injure program. Rather, they have treated that testimony as if it were irrelevant, and have cited case law backing their argument that federal courts do not have jurisdiction to interfere in a process that was collectively bargained. NFL attorneys have noted that multiple system arbitrators have already agreed that Goodell has followed the very policies for imposing discipline to which players agreed in the league's labour agreement.
Berrigan, however, has allowed the case to continue and asked for more legal briefs since a July 26 hearing in which she noted she has some concerns about whether Goodell really did follow proper procedures.