The most powerful sports league in the country found itself powerless in federal court again Thursday morning. In nullifying the National Football League’s suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a federal judge handed the NFL its most prominent legal defeat in a tumultuous year and provided further evidence the league must alter its approach to player discipline if it wants to avoid further embarrassment.
Judge Richard M. Berman vacated Brady’s four-game suspension and hammered the NFL — and, by extension, Commissioner Roger Goodell — for legal overreach and incompetence. Berman wrote that Goodell based Brady’s penalty on “several significant legal deficiencies” and suggested Goodell was “not free to merely dispense his own brand of industrial justice.”
In so many words, Berman told the NFL that yelling the phrase “conduct detrimental” does not bestow unlimited power upon Goodell. This continues a string of courtroom losses for the league in the past 12 months: A former federal judge reduced Ray Rice’s suspension following domestic abuse charges, and a current federal judge overturned Adrian Peterson’s suspension following child abuse accusations. Nonetheless, Goodell was unrelenting in his punishment of Brady, steadfast in his belief that the collective bargaining agreement granted him such authority. In emphatic fashion, it backfired.
Having suffered such legal losses, spending millions of dollars and damaging its credibility in the process, will the NFL change?
“You would think so,” said sports lawyer Alan Milstein, who once fought the NFL over the draft rights of running back Maurice Clarett. “But there is no end to the NFL’s arrogance and its insatiable appetite to control every aspect of the game on and off the field.”
As much as Brady won Thursday morning, it served as a more far-reaching loss for a commissioner who has staked his tenure on discipline and player conduct. The entire saga appeared to expose the NFL’s disciplinary system as flawed. Over the course of nine months, the league diminished one of its most marketable players, squandered millions of dollars and prolonged a story that seemed to tarnish both sides. And it’s not over yet.
The league immediately appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, though it will not seek a stay of the ruling reinstating Brady, meaning he can play for the Patriots during the appeal process.
“This decision should serve as a wake-up call to the NFL,” sports lawyer Dan Wallach said. “They need to look in the mirror and look at the CBA a little more literally rather than as a magic wand they can wave however they want.”
Goodell serves the owners, and at least the Patriots’ ownership has called for change. Speaking on a Boston radio station Aug. 22, Patriots President Jonathan Kraft said player discipline “probably needs to be rethought for the modern era that we’re in and the different things that are coming up that I don’t think people anticipated and how the public wants to see them treated.”
The NFL’s latest defeat makes it vulnerable to future challenges. Players will be emboldened by Brady, perhaps the biggest star in the sport, taking on the NFL and winning. That means the league, unless it changes its process, could again find itself entangled in a drawn-out court case and at risk of suffering another rebuke in federal court.
“It’s not the power that’s the problem,” Wallach said. “It’s the discretion. It’s the judgment of the person in power. How many more cases does the NFL need to lose in federal court before it learns it needs to go about its cases in a different way?”
The effects surfaced immediately. Shortly after the Brady ruling came out, ESPN reported that defensive end Greg Hardy, whom the NFL suspended for his alleged domestic abuse, will meet with the NFLPA about taking the league to court to reduce his suspension. With Rice and Peterson and now Brady, the dam has broken.
Berman suggested the decision should convince the NFL to introduce a truly neutral system for investigations and appeals, giving players more voice in the process. Seven times in his 40-page ruling, Berman used scare quotes around the word “independent” in describing the DeflateGate investigation the NFL relied upon.
The NFL had dubbed it the Wells report, for allegedly independent investigator Ted Wells. Berman amended the title to the Pash/Wells report, including the name of NFL general counsel Jeff Pash.
Berman made a mockery of the supposed independence of the process, which also included Goodell’s lieutenant, Troy Vincent, handing down the suspension and Goodell himself hearing Brady’s appeal.
“This is not a win just for Brady,” Milstein said. “It’s a win for anyone compelled by contract to arbitrate. The bottom line: You are still entitled to a fair and impartial hearing.”
Berman rebuked the NFL itself and not the collective bargaining agreement, which is an important distinction. There is a perception that the NFL Players Association handed the NFL too much in the last round of CBA negotiations in 2011. The NFLPA rejects that premise. It maintains that Article 46 of the CBA gives Goodell powers that are essentially the same as the powers every other commissioner held — but contends that Goodell abuses and oversteps those bounds. It never wanted to change the CBA; it wanted Goodell to adhere to it.
In his ruling, Berman sided with the NFLPA’s stance.
“Goodell’s reliance on notice of broad CBA ‘conduct detrimental’ policy — as opposed to specific Player Policies regarding equipment violations — to impose discipline upon Brady is legally misplaced,” he wrote.
“This decision should prove, once and for all, that our Collective Bargaining Agreement does not grant this Commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading,” players’ union executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. “While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of Commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed.”
Will the NFL view evolve? At his Super Bowl news conference in January, Goodell claimed he had experienced a year of “learning and humility.” Thursday’s legal decision offered both another lesson and an opportunity to show he had been humbled. The league’s immediate appeal signaled little change.
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