National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell suffered a colossal public embarrassment Thursday when Judge Richard Berman issued his decision to overturn Tom Brady’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension. Berman’s ruling didn’t just damage the NFL’s brand – it could fundamentally change the balance of power between the league and its players' union.
The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement affords Goodell the right to mete out discipline on players as he sees fit, with few concrete limits to his power. Berman’s ruling could change that. The reversal, which occurred in a New York court as preferred by the NFL's lawyers, came after similar reversals on disciplinary action the league took after the New Orleans Saints’ “Bountygate" scandal and Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice’s suspensions for domestic violence. The NFL Players Association now has a firm federal precedent through which it can challenge Goodell’s decisions – a factor that will certainly affect labor negotiations when the league’s current CBA expires in 2021.
“It’s literally worth millions of dollars to the NFL Players Association, to the players collectively, if they have the right to go into court and force the commissioner to either settle on more favorable terms or to vacate those decisions entirely,” said Fred Yen, a professor at Boston College Law School in Massachusetts.
The NFL spent millions of dollars on Ted Wells’ investigation into allegations Brady tampered with footballs used in the AFC Championship game last January and possibly millions more on court fees associated with Brady’s lengthy suspension appeal. Already reeling from scandals related to domestic violence and concussions, the NFL suffered further damage to its public image after Goodell appointed himself arbitrator over Brady’s appeal, placing himself at the center of what many deemed to be a witch hunt of one of the league’s most beloved stars.
Brady’s case against the NFL arrived in Berman’s court months after Wells, an NFL-hired independent investigator, determined Brady was “at least generally aware” that Patriots equipment assistants altered air pressure in footballs used during New England’s 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game. Goodell appointed himself as an independent arbitrator for Brady’s appeal – as was his collectively bargained right – and affirmed Brady’s four-game suspension.
But the NFL abandoned any pretense of Goodell’s independence in federal court, arguing the commissioner acted under Article 46 of the CBA, which league representatives said empowers Goodell to protect the integrity of the game. Berman rejected that argument and identified three of the NFL’s key failures in its bid to discipline Brady.
The NFL did not provide Brady with “adequate notice” of his wrongdoing or its subsequent punishment, it did not allow Brady’s legal team to question NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash -- who edited the Wells Report -- and it did not provide Brady’s team with equal access to pertinent documents, Berman’s filing said. Moreover, there is no specific clause in the NFL’s rule book under which Brady could have expected punishment for his alleged actions. The NFL sought to punish Brady with penalties equal to those given to players who use performance-enhancing substances, and Berman rejected that connection.
“Goodell’s reliance on notice of broad CBA ‘conduct detrimental’ policy – as opposed to specific Player Policies regarding equipment violations – to impose discipline on Brady is legally misplaced,” Berman’s filing said.
Critics questioned Goodell’s near-totalitarian control over the league’s disciplinary apparatus before the ink was dry on the NFL’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement, and the NFLPA has sought ways to contest his power ever since. Goodell suffered his first major setback in 2012 during the Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal, when he suspended four players for allegedly participating in a team program that doled out cash rewards for tackles that caused injury. Paul Tagliabue, the former NFL Commissioner and the league-appointed arbitrator in the case, later reversed all four suspensions.
Legal checks against Goodell’s power continued in late 2014, when independent arbitrator Barbara S. Jones overturned former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension for domestic violence, citing a lack of evidence to support the league’s claim that Rice misled them about the incident. Similarly, U.S. District Court Judge David S. Coty ruled last February that Goodell overstepped his authority when he suspended Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for an incident involving physical violence against his four-year-old son.
The NFL has already announced its intention to appeal Judge Berman’s ruling on the Brady case, citing its opinion that the legal precedent would hurt its ability to protect competitive balance.
"We will appeal today’s ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game,” Goodell said in a statement, according to USA Today. “The commissioner’s responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle, and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end. While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season."
It’s highly unlikely that the NFL will change its disciplinary structure before the current CBA expires. But with each new ruling against Goodell, league officials lose leverage in future labor negotiations. Player union representatives can point to Berman’s ruling and other reversals as proof of the need for independent oversight for discipline.
In the interim, Berman’s ruling will embolden future players accused of “conduct detrimental” to the league, or that are disciplined by the league in any way that isn’t specifically outlined in the rule book, to challenge their penalties in court. Recent indications suggest they’ll have a strong chance at a favorable ruling.
“I think that’s what’s really at stake here: whether or not the historic authority of the commissioner to decide these matters and not have courts intervene in them is being eroded,” said Gary Roberts, dean emeritus and professor at Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law. “In the short term, I don’t know how significant that will be. Long term, when the next collective bargaining agreement comes up, the two sides are going to negotiate this.”