Deflategate: Players Line Up in Court


From the private arbitration process of the appeal hearing, to the public play-off in court, the players in Deflategate are still in it to win it, and one emerges as the MVP to the legal outcome.

Recap: The Ruling

At the center of the Deflategate debate is Commissioner Roger Goodell. An NFL employee who imposes discipline upon NFL players, then reviews said discipline upon appeal, before rendering a final, legally binding decision.

The complexity of this role can only be explained by considering the collective-bargaining agreement, which governs the relationship between the parties to the controversy.

Upholding the discipline imposed on New England Patriots’ Quarterback Tom Brady, Goodell pointed to the CBA in support of the commissioner’s authority to dually impose and review discipline.

Specifically, Section 2(a) of Article 46, the clause in question, states that “the Commissioner may serve as hearing officer in any appeal under Section 1(a) of this Article at his discretion.” 

Section 1(a) concerns “action taken against a player by the Commissioner for conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football,” and is the clause under which Goodell disciplined Brady.

Goodell addressed NFL Executive Vice President Troy Vincent’s role in the matter by stating that he “authorized” the discipline which was “communicated” by Vincent. Any speculation as to Goodell’s intent to distance himself from the discipline is clarified. “I did not delegate my authority as Commissioner,” Goodell confirmed.

Goodell also referenced Section 2(d) of Article 46, stating his decision “will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement with respect to that dispute.” 

Recap: The Relevant Law

The CBA grants Goodell a great deal of power in overseeing NFL disciplinary matters, from start to finish. Under the aforesaid sections of the negotiated contract, Goodell possesses the authority to discipline a player, and to subsequently decide, at his own discretion, to review that discipline. Goodell is clear in asserting his rights as commissioner under the contract, to the full extent of the contract.

Though the clause defining Goodell’s role as commissioner and arbitrator is unique to the NFL, contract language addressing the binding nature of arbitration decisions is not, and may be challenging for the NFLPA to overcome in court.

Courts are generally constrained in cases involving arbitration decisions as only limited judicial review is allowed. Accordingly, an arbitration decision can be reduced, but under very few circumstances. 

The NFLPA must prove at least one of the following to prevail in court:

  • Goodell’s arbitration award “was procured by corruption, fraud, or undue means;”
  • Goodell was evidently partial or corrupt;
  • Goodell “was guilty of misconduct in refusing to hear” pertinent or material evidence; “or of any other misbehavior by which the rights of any party have been prejudiced;”
  • Goodell exceeded his powers, “or so imperfectly executed them that a mutual, final, and definite award upon the subject matter submitted was not made.”

Stay Tuned

Though Judge Richard M. Berman is strongly encouraging the NFL and NFLPA to settle, should the parties fail, Berman’s decision on the matter will be based on the conduct of one man, perhaps the most valuable player in this legal battle. Hint: it’s not Tom Brady.

Given that courts apply great judicial deference to arbitrators’ awards, the NFLPA has a lot of bases to cover (wrong sport, but relevant nonetheless) in order to win this one.