By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) - A federal judge dismissed a defamation suit on Thursday by New Orleans Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma against National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell, one of the last open issues arising from the team's so-called bounty scandal.
U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan in New Orleans said Vilma failed to show that Goodell acted with "actual malice" in making six purportedly libelous or slanderous statements between early March and early May of last year.
These statements came after the NFL determined that some Saints players, coaches and officials were involved in a program that awarded cash to players for knocking opponents out of games between 2009 and 2011.
Lawyers for Vilma and Goodell did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Vilma and three teammates were suspended in May after the NFL found they had leadership roles in the program. Those suspensions were overturned last month.
In her decision, Berrigan criticized the way Goodell handled part of the probe, including by denying players the right to confront their accusers.
But she said Vilma's defamation claims were not supported by the evidence, and affirmed the commissioner's right to suspend players he believes engaged in conduct detrimental to the league.
Goodell's statements "indicate that they were based on an extensive investigation," Berrigan wrote. "So while the process was initially procedurally flawed, the statements were ultimately found to have enough support to defeat the defamation claims."
Alluding to the Saints' 2012 season, when the team missed the playoffs with a 7-9 record, Berrigan said that while the defamation case began only last May, "it feels as protracted and painful as the Saints season itself, and calls for closure."
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Sandra Maler)