The order by Magistrate Daniel Knowles on Tuesday came in response to suspended linebacker Jonathan Vilma’s efforts to initiate the discovery process in his defamation case against the commissioner. Vilma has said the NFL has allowed him to review only a fraction of documents related to bounty matter.
Knowles issued a compromise order in which only the court, and not Vilma, may see the documents – including reports of interviews with witnesses – before a subsequent order is made on whether to allow discovery to proceed.
NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said league officials have already discussed the order with Knowles and have agreed to comply.
The order comes a day after Vilma re-filed a related lawsuit in the same New Orleans federal court asking for his season-long suspension to be overturned. That lawsuit also has argued that the NFL has failed to fully disclose its evidence in the bounty investigation.
The NFLPA filed a similar request on behalf of three other current or former Saints players suspended in the probe: Saints defensive end Will Smith (four games), free agent defensive lineman Anthony Hargrove (seven games) and Cleveland linebacker Scott Fujita (one game).
The players’ lawsuits contend that Goodell is incapable of acting as a neutral arbitrator in the bounty matter, in large part because his public statements soon after the NFL’s investigation was made public last March indicated that he already had determined the guilt of the players before the disciplinary process began.
Vilma, who has his own lawyers, and the NFLPA also contend that the bulk of witness testimony in the bounty probe came from former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and former Saints defensive assistant Mike Cerullo. They both have provided the NFL with sworn declarations backing allegations that the Saints had a pool that rewarded defensive players with cash for hits that injured opponents, and that Vilma offered $10,000 to anyone who knocked then-Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre out of the 2009-10 NFC title game.
Attorneys for the punished players say those two witnesses lack credibility because Williams is suspended indefinitely and his reinstatement hinges on his cooperation, and because Cerullo was fired by the Saints and had a vendetta against the club.
All four of the players are technically eligible to play this weekend because their appeals of their suspensions within the framework of the NFL’s labor agreement are pending. Goodell has scheduled their appeal hearings for Oct. 23 and could rule soon afterward.
In the meantime, the players are hoping U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan will ultimately issue a ruling that voids Goodell’s decision to suspend the players and order a neutral arbitrator to handle any further discipline in the matter.