Former Hurricane Jonathan Vilma goes from victim to aggressor in bounty scandal

09/16/2012 12:01 AM

09/16/2012 12:42 AM

That Hurricane flag has gone so limp over the years.

The University of Miami holds the record for most players drafted in a single NFL first round (six), most over two years (11), most over three years (15) and most over four (19), but hasn’t had a single player taken in the first round in four years. That streak of a Hurricane scoring an NFL touchdown every week from 2002 to 2011, 149 consecutive football weeks, died quietly last year. Ray Lewis is getting old, man, so you need not have noticed the 50,000 or so unoccupied seats at the UM game Saturday to feel every bit that empty.

At least Jonathan Vilma is still proudly carrying that Hurricane flag, though. Last week, he planted it with attitude right in the center of his overzealous commissioner’s office.

Many years ago, back when he was just a college kid trying to find his voice, Vilma revealed a little bit about the strong man he would one day become. The conversation was about swagger. The Hurricane way, loud and obnoxious and overwhelming for so many years, is part of what attracted Vilma to the peacock-preening program. He was lured, as kids can be, to that rebellious hip-hop style of promising you a beat-down, delivering said beat-down, then reminding you loudly afterward that you had been beaten down.

But something interesting happened on the way to the throne. Vilma, as the brightest college kids are wont to do, grew up. Surrounded by the humble excellence of Andre Johnson and Ed Reed, Vilma realized, upon entering that champion huddle he helped shape, that he preferred a different style. He didn’t want to be a copycat rebel, loud and unoriginal, so this Hurricane decided he would be a quieter kind of storm.

Vilma was unusually mature for his age, book smart and street smart, and he said he wasn’t interested in winning the abrasive way those old Hurricanes did. He was intent on wrapping his violent fury in dignity and class. He valued his good name, and he has spent a decade in the pros preserving it, and damn if he’s going to let someone take it from him now in his waning football years without a very public fight … even if the guy trying to stain it is among the most powerful men in sports.

This is a long way of saying that football overlord Roger Goodell, in his zeal to make a very public point, trampled the wrong grown man.

The Saints bounty story has been one of the most overblown scandals in sports history — so loud only because Goodell chose to reveal it and then punish it with iron-fisted overindulgence, gift-wrapping the media an easy and noisy story in America’s most popular sport. Goodell, faced with the oxymoronic task of making a violent game safe, decided to scapegoat the Saints for something that was about as old as football. This, as the Ravens, in his unsafe league, play four games in 17 days to start this season, and Goodell himself works to expand the regular season to 18 games of profit. Goodell punished the Saints excessively as a symbolic statement because his concussed league now has a liability issue he is trying to eradicate as former players limp to the courtroom en masse.

If not for the heavy-handed punishments, and the media swirl it generated, almost every player in the league would shrug his shoulder pads at the spirit of what the Saints are alleged to have done. Former Dolphin Jason Taylor said last week that, if you change the wording from “bounty” to “big-hit pool” or “incentive pool,” you’d be able to prosecute just about every team in the league for what has stained the Saints. Goodell, so omnipotent for so long, making up the punishment rules on a whim, his employees complaining about his power but doing nothing to reduce it even while collectively bargaining during a lockout, thought he’d just be able to make a big, easy show of strength with Vilma, flexing his muscle about how he was cracking down on safety.

But, again, he picked on the wrong guy, suspending Vilma for a year for allegedly orchestrating the bounties without any proof anyone has seen. The Saints’ alleged leaders, the coaches, fled the league in disgrace without a fight. Vilma did no such thing, and won’t, and now he brings the fight to the commissioner, with the backing of an appeals board that reversed Goodell’s suspension. Vilma declined meetings with Goodell until last week, saying he wouldn’t get a fair hearing, but he went last week because Goodell has been forced to soften by the public shame brought by the appeals board.

Goodell very much wanted this bounty story in the news at the time he revealed it. That is no longer so. He’d like it to go away now, but Vilma refuses to make it easy. Vilma has forced fairness upon the commissioner and continues to apply pressure because he hasn’t accepted any of the league’s offers to reduce his penalty. Vilma declined to discuss this Saturday, saying he had to abide by judge’s orders, but one of his representatives said, “Jonathan could have accepted a reduction to eight games. It was offered. But he won’t accept guilt. He’ll pay any amount to clear his name. He says you can’t put a cost on fighting for your name and reputation.”

Those old Hurricane teams that lured Vilma to UM once upon a time loved to punch the bully in the mouth.

That flag isn’t what it was, not nearly, but it is good to see a few of those old strong guys still waving it.

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