For the second time, either a federal judge or former federal judge has ruled against the NFL in its bid to enforce a suspension imposed against a high-profile player during the turbulent 2014 season.
For the second time, the NFL Players Association has declared the ruling a significant triumph for players’ rights.
And for the second time, it is unclear what practical impact the decision will have, if any, for the player involved.
U.S. District Judge David S. Doty on Thursday overruled NFL-appointed arbitrator Harold Henderson’s rejection of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s appeal of his suspension by the league, which was to run at least until April 15. Doty sent the case back for further proceedings under the sport’s collective bargaining agreement, potentially clearing the way for Peterson’s reinstatement sooner than mid-April.
In November, former federal judge Barbara S. Jones reinstated former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice, ending Rice’s indefinite suspension by the NFL. Jones had been appointed by the league to hear and resolve Rice’s appeal of his indefinite suspension, which had been imposed by the league in September.
Rice remains unsigned.
Peterson’s playing status remains unclear.
So did the players really win anything?
The union says yes.
“This is a victory for the rule of law, due process and fairness,” DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFLPA, said in a written statement issued Thursday by the players’ union. “Our collective bargaining agreement has rules for implementation of the personal conduct policy and when those rules are violated, our union always stands up to protect our players’ rights. This is yet another example why neutral arbitration is good for our players, good for the owners and good for our game.”
After Rice’s reinstatement in November, the union issued a statement that said: “This decision is a victory for a disciplinary process that is fair and transparent. This union will always stand up and fight for the due process rights of our players. While we take no pleasure in seeing a decision that confirms what we have been saying about the Commissioner’s office acting arbitrarily, we hope that this will bring the NFL owners to the collective bargaining table to fix a broken process. It is clear that this decision should force the NFL to embrace neutral arbitration as part of a necessary due process in all cases. The players thank Judge Barbara Jones for her time and thoroughness in this matter.”
The union has been at odds with the league at most steps along the way in the Rice and Peterson cases and is attempting to make a larger point about the need, in its view, for an independent arbitrator to hear and resolve appeals by players of discipline imposed under the personal conduct policy.
That message seems to have made little headway with the NFL. When the owners in December ratified the league’s new personal conduct policy, the policy put initial disciplinary rulings under the authority of a to-be-hired chief disciplinary officer. But any appeals of such rulings still are to be heard and resolved by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or a person appointed by Goodell, under the new policy.
The NFL portrayed that as a significant change, given that Goodell previously was empowered both to make the initial disciplinary rulings and resolve appeals. The union viewed things otherwise, saying it would have been content to allow Goodell to continue to make initial disciplinary rulings as long as appeals would go to an outside arbitrator. The union has filed a grievance, which remains pending, over the revamped personal conduct policy.
Smith is up for re-election in March. One of his challengers for the executive director’s job, former NFL defensive lineman Sean Gilbert, has taken the position that Smith and the union should have dealt with the issue of neutral arbitration during the previous set of labor negotiations, making it a larger priority then instead of waiting until now. Smith has said the union did consider it a priority during those labor negotiations but each side, union and league, had to settle for an agreement not entirely to its liking.
As for what Doty’s decision means for Peterson’s prospective reinstatement, that’s not yet known. A person familiar with the league’s inner workings said it is “possible” that the NFL will appeal Doty’s ruling. The league officially said only that it is “reviewing the decision.”
Peterson remains under contract to the Vikings for next season. Team officials have said they want him back. There have been reports of a verbal confrontation between Peterson’s agent and a Vikings official at the NFL scouting combine. There has been speculation that Peterson won’t play for the Vikings again and would prefer to play for the Dallas Cowboys.
All of that will play out when Peterson is reinstated. The sooner that Peterson is reinstated, the sooner the Vikings will have to make a decision about keeping him, attempting to trade him or releasing him. Peterson presumably would have more options with other teams if he is released or made available in a trade as soon after the March 10 onset of free agency and trading as possible.
But no matter when Peterson is reinstated, the Vikings and any other interested teams will have to make decisions about what they perceive his value to be. On the field, he has been one of the sport’s most productive runners and biggest stars. But he turns 30 in March and missed all but one game this past season. Off the field, he faced charges related to him disciplining his 4-year-old son by striking the child with a switch. Peterson reached a plea agreement and avoided jail time.
The rulings by Jones and Doty have been portrayed by some observers as setbacks to the attempts by Goodell and the league to wield their power in the area of player discipline. But some within the sport have held the view that when the league was under great public pressure in September while outrage over the Rice, Peterson and Greg Hardy cases grew, the NFL simply took the approach that it would do whatever was necessary to get those players off the field and worry about the legal consequences later.
Rice, Peterson and Hardy have not played since. The ramifications continue to play out.
UPDATE: The NFL announced it will appeal Doty’s ruling.
The league issued a written statement that said: “Judge Doty’s order did not contain any determinations concerning the fairness of the appeals process under the CBA, including the commissioner’s longstanding authority to appoint a designee to act as hearing officer. Even so, we believe strongly that Judge Doty’s order is incorrect and fundamentally at odds with well-established legal precedent governing the district court’s role in reviewing arbitration decisions. As a result, we have filed a notice of appeal to have the ruling reviewed by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. In the interim, Adrian Peterson will be returned to the Commissioner Exempt List pending further proceedings by appeals officer Harold Henderson or a determination by the Eighth Circuit Court.”
The Vikings said in a written statement: “Adrian Peterson is an important member of the Minnesota Vikings, and our focus remains on welcoming him back when he is able to rejoin our organization. Today’s ruling leaves Adrian’s status under the control of the NFL, the NFLPA and the legal system, and we will have no further comment at this time.”