When does application of the National Football League (NFL) rules draw a penalty? Upon further review, when the rules change mid-game.

Instant Replay

On November 18, 2014, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson without pay for the remainder of the season “following Peterson’s corporal punishment of his son in May 2014.” A fine of six weeks’ pay was also imposed. Goodell ordered that Peterson’s return to the league would be dictated by the results of his participation in a counseling and treatment program.

The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) tackled the discipline by appealing to arbitration, and the NFL appointed Harold Henderson as designated hearing officer.

Henderson upheld Commissioner Goodell’s discipline “in its entirety.” He specifically noted that the Commissioner possessed “broad discretion” in imposing discipline and that “the egregious facts justified harsher punishment” under the recently updated Personal Conduct Policy (New Policy), rejecting the NFLPA’s counter that Goodell retroactively applied the New Policy. 

The original policy had been updated on August 28, 2014 to include “increased sanctions for domestic violence and sexual assault incidents” following public criticism over the Commissioner’s initial two-game suspension and fine of one week's salary for running back Ray Rice. Goodell then indefinitely suspended Rice after the release of a second video publicly airing his involvement in a domestic violence incident. 

Arbitrator Barbara S. Jones vacated that subsequent penalty in Nat'l Football League, 134 BNA LA 61, finding that Goodell abused his discretion when he imposed the heightened sanction and arbitrarily disciplined Rice for a second time.

Award Interference and Illegal Procedure

On December 15, 2014, the NFLPA kicked off the Peterson proceeding by filing a petition to vacate Harold Henderson’s award “under Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185 (LMRA) and Section 10 of the Federal Arbitration Act, 9 U.S.C. § 10 (FAA).”

In Nat'l Football League Players Ass'n v. Nat'l Football League, United States District Judge David S. Doty granted the petition to vacate the arbitration award and remanded the case.

Doty concluded that Goodell disciplined Peterson in accordance with the New Policy, despite the Commissioner “unequivocally” recognizing weeks earlier in the Rice arbitration that the policy was not applicable retroactively. 

Though Henderson and the NFL distinguished the Rice award on the basis of its “double discipline issue,” Doty blocked the argument and found that the factual difference did not “justify a different result,” or “explain why the well-recognized bar against retroactivity did not apply to Peterson.”

Additionally, the NFLPA asserted that “Henderson exceeded his authority by adjudicating” whether the imposed discipline “could be sustained under the previous Policy,” even though the sole legal issue submitted to Henderson by the NFLPA questioned “whether the New Policy could be applied retroactively.” 

Doty noted that the record failed to support a determination that the NFLPA requested Henderson to review discipline under the previous policy. Further, Doty stated that Henderson fumbled in concluding that the New Policy was consistent with the previous policy as it contradicted Commissioner Goodell’s “own statements in which he acknowledged that the New Policy included ‘changes’ to the Policy.” 

Judge Doty held that, because Henderson “disregarded the law of the shop,” and did not “meet his duty under the” collective-bargaining agreement (CBA), the award failed to “draw its essence from the CBA,” thereby warranting vacatur of the award.

The Final Score

The conclusion that illegal procedure was exercised in disciplining the running back highlights the importance of rules off the football field. Failure to play by the rules may lead to a dramatic loss, and in this case, it did, in the form of award vacatur. For those involved in the game, an understanding of legal strategy and the position of offensive and defensive players is critical, but adherence to applicable rules from beginning, across the middle, and into the end (zone) will ultimately lead the team to a win.

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