Jonathan Vilma presented a compelling case, but was it enough?

Once the smoke cleared and the exchange of words ceased Thursday inside the courtroom of federal judge Helen Berrigan, the fundamental issue remained unchanged.

Jonathan Vilma's temporary restraining order hearing was about whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had the fix in for him and had predetermined that a Vilma defense was without merit, and about whether Berrigan has the authority to set aside Goodell's one-year suspension of Vilma, temporarily or permanently, power that even the judge isn't sure that she holds.

So while Vilma might have gained ground and won more support as he continued to administer body shot after body shot to Goodell's image, Vilma still is nowhere near a majority decision and only might have inched closer to a draw.

Gaining ground with Joe Public and making headway with a judge are different matters altogether, and it's tough to say the needle significantly moved in favor of the New Orleans Saints' suspended linebacker.

Not to say his offensive wasn't impressive.

A parade of witnesses - including teammates Roman Harper, Scott Shanle, Jonathan Casillas and Sedrick Ellis and interim head coach Joe Vitt - adamantly insisted the Saints did not have a pay-for-injury bounty program.

They caringly spoke of Vilma as a friend and player, admirably detailed his leadership qualities and toughness.

But the hearing wasn't about positive characteristics and his willingness to provide wonderful, needed charitable contributions.

Nor was it about the uniform, disarming definitions that he and his supporters provided for phrases like "whack," "cart-off" and "kill the head."

It wasn't about the line that Vilma and the NFL have drawn between pay for performance (Vilma's assertion) and pay for injury (the NFL's assertion).

And it didn't center on whether Berrigan believes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell overstepped his authority when he issued unprecedented league suspensions, including a season for Vilma, for the roles Goodell determined that several current and former team executives and players held in establishing, funding and nurturing a bounty program.

And Vilma, his attorneys and the NFL Players Association counsel present must have been giddy internally when Berrigan informed NFL lawyers that she had "jurisdictional concerns" about Goodell's ruling.

That aside, the hearing was about whether Vilma's career would be irreparably damaged by the suspension, and whether Berrigan even can do something about it.

"There is not sufficient evidence to support what he has done," argued Peter Ginsberg, one of Vilma's attorneys.

"He's not allowed to prejudge," Ginsberg added.

And Berrigan - also, undoubtedly, to the delight of Vilma and Co. - suggested that Goodell had shoehorned the allegations into his jurisdictional strike zone. She said the evidence on which Goodell based the suspensions easily could have been classified as on-field violations or salary-cap circumvention, rather than off-field, integrity-of-the-game crimes.

She said that the agreement of arbitrators might have been a result of possible fear of ruling against the powerful commissioner.

But when league attorneys countered that, one, Vilma didn't wholly participate in the appeals process or exhaust it and, two, that Berrigan doesn't have the authority to overrule Goodell's boundaries that have been determined by the collective bargaining agreement, it's that much more difficult to envision Vilma gaining long-term relief from the suspension.

When the fact was established that none of Vilma's witnesses were asked to appear on his behalf at the appeals hearing with Goodell on June 18 - a brief, direct cross examination that NFL attorneys gave to each witness - it might have fed Vilma's contention that he believed his fate had been decided, but it also helped the league's argument that Vilma shouldn't seek relief from Berrigan when he hasn't exhausted all options.

Now he hopes Berrigan will provide that relief, by way of granting his temporary restraining order. But even she isn't sure that she has the authority to do so.
For all the positives Vilma might have gained Thursday from his and others' testimony under oath, that one snag is a significant one.

And it's hard to believe he can get past it.

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