Step One: Lay Low ... For Now
At least for the time being, the veteran linebacker is laying low and concentrating on his defamation suit against the NFL (Vilma filed a lawsuit against the NFL after they suspended him for allegedly taking a leadership role in the Saints' bounty system) and any punishment that Roger Goodell may decide to levy against him (after a second meeting with Vilma, Goodell is expected to announce a new ruling imminently) before anything else.
With a bum knee and sponsors who have stopped calling — Verizon, who he used to do appearances for, has not tapped him for any engagements since the Bountygate scandal broke — it's really the only thing he can do right now anyways. Vilma is currently on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list and has been recovering from knee surgery that he had over the summer.
Step Two: Tell The Truth
Public relations crisis consultant Mike Paul, who says he's worked with numerous other professional athletes (though he won't identify specific clients due to confidentially clauses) to rebuild their reputations, had this to offer: "Own the fact that you were associated with it if you were," he said. "You know the truth. If you did it, come clean and apologize."
But if he didn't do it? Same thing: honesty, said Paul, but humble honesty. He added some of the sample statements for Vilma to feed the media once he's ready to speak out include: "I hope people will realize that I am the same player as I was before the commissioner made these false allegations against me" and "These allegations are also hurtful from my team's perspective."
Paul said it's important that Vilma prove he's not only a clean player on the field, but off the field as well. "Whether you like it or not, you're going to have a media microscope and a fan microscope on you. More people are going to watch you closer than ever before," he said. For Vilma, that means no more transgressions like getting charged with reckless driving or hanging out with Ponzi schemers.
But it also means that time-honored reputation building traditions of finding Jesus and community service (see: Lewis, Ray) may not work unless Vilma's truly buying into it.
"You say you found Jesus, you better be Christ-like in every single thing you do," Paul said. "If you're at the club, even if you're not doing anything wrong, if a paparazzi snaps a picture of you drunk off your ass and you're grinding on some girl that photo alone just took you to deeper places with a negative reputation."
Step Three: Get Your Football Career Back
A source close to Vilma says he expects to play in the league for a few more seasons, although one NFL agent who declined to be identified cautioned that Vilma's in the danger zone that a lot of linebackers fall into: hitting 30, hurt and in danger of losing his athleticism, which is even more important in the era of the spread passing offense. "[He's] coming off a knee injury and he can't go outside and work on that athleticism because he's rehabbing.This is where players lose their career," the agent warned. "They get injured in their legs and they lose a step."
Step Four: Super Bowl Baby
Even if the Saints don't make it into the big game this year (and at 0-4 it's not something that looks that likely), it's still being held in Vilma's hometown of New Orleans. The source close to Vilma says that he hopes by then the dust will have cleared and he can start painting himself as a New Orleans hero again during lead-up media coverage to the game.
Paul, the crisis PR expert, said that's also a good time for companies to start picking Vilma up as a spokesman again — at a bargain price. "He has to hope that there are sponsors that he doesn't have now that will give him a second chance," Paul said. (Although this, it took us a second to notice, is a joke.)