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Why The 'Deflategate' Ruling Could Finally Limit Roger Goodell's Power

A federal judge on Thursday dealt a "very big blow" to the NFL commissioner's disciplinary authority.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, is seen with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Feb. 1, 2015.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, left, is seen with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Feb. 1, 2015.

A federal judge delivered a strong rebuke to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell on Thursday when he vacated the four-game suspension issued to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for Brady’s alleged role in the “Deflategate” scandal.

Judge Richard Berman ruled that Brady’s suspension was "premised on several legal deficiencies" that did not adhere to the league’s collective bargaining agreement, or CBA, with its players. Notably, Berman found, the NFL did not provide sufficient notice to Brady that he could be suspended for being "generally aware" of another person's supposed misconduct. The judge also found that Goodell, in his role as “independent” arbitrator when Brady initially appealed the decision, failed to provide the quarterback with a fair hearing.

For Goodell, Berman’s decision amounts to another loss in a major case involving player discipline. In the past year, judges have vacated suspensions that Goodell handed to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson under the league’s new domestic violence and child abuse policies. The Brady decision could also rival the New Orleans Saints “Bountygate” case -- in which former league Commissioner Paul Tagliabue vacated suspensions Goodell had handed to four players -- as Goodell's biggest loss on a disciplinary issue, particularly as it comes from a judge in the Manhattan courtroom the league hand-picked. 

The NFL quickly announced plans to appeal Berman’s ruling. But for now, at least, Goodell is 0-for-4 in the major disciplinary cases of his tenure as commissioner. And if the Brady decision is upheld, the cumulative effect of those losses could be a defining moment that finally reduces Goodell's powers, sports labor experts and NFL Players Association officials said Thursday. 

Yes, after a year of cases involving domestic violence and child abuse, a federal judge's particularly harsh decision in a dispute over deflated footballs could prove to be the breaking point.

Courts and arbitrators have spent decades eroding commissioners’ once-unquestioned power to handle disciplinary issues as they see fit, but the NFL’s top official has retained more powers than his counterparts in the NBA, NHL and MLB. Goodell has served with full authority in NFL conduct cases thanks to a provision in the collective bargaining agreement that grants him the power both to issue fines and suspensions and to serve as a “neutral” arbiter when players appeal. But the Brady case, along with the other losses Goodell has suffered, may signal a change in the overall power dynamic, said Ed Edmonds, a University of Notre Dame professor who specializes in sports law.

“It’s a very big blow,” Edmonds said. “This is another step in the weakening of the commissioner’s unilateral, strong powers to render disciplinary decisions.”

Berman ruled that Goodell could not discipline Brady under a clause in the collective bargaining agreement that prohibits players from engaging in conduct that is "detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football.” Nor could Goodell rely on the collectively bargained policy on performance-enhancing drugs as a standard for the four-game punishment. The NFL’s argument that Brady was “generally aware” of the deflated footballs, Berman ruled, was inadequate, as the league had never used that standard to discipline players.

The reasoning has been different in each one of Goodell’s major losses, but at bottom, all of them, including the one involving Brady, have stemmed from judges or arbitrators ruling that Goodell overstepped his disciplinary authority under the league’s collective bargaining agreement in one way or another. The NFL Players Association highlighted that point Thursday in a statement after the ruling.

"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,” said DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFLPA, in the 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.”

The NFLPA has repeatedly criticized Goodell’s handling of disciplinary issues, including the way he has exercised his authority to serve as a "neutral" arbitrator in such cases. It sought independent arbitration to no avail in the Brady case, and it has called for a fully neutral arbitration process in the past.

The recent decisions, together with a long-brewing mistrust for the commissioner among players -- some of whom celebrated Berman’s decision -- could lead the union to seek changes to the league’s disciplinary policies in the next round of bargaining talks, said George Atallah, the NFLPA’s assistant executive director for external affairs.

“There are only two options moving forward,” Atallah told The Huffington Post. “Either the commissioner and league office respect the parameters of our CBA, or we work together to improve the system.”

Either the commissioner and league office respect the parameters of our CBA, or we work together to improve the system." George Atallah, NFLPA

But even if the problems between players and the league don't result in new standards through bargaining, the Deflategate episode could lead to changes in how Goodell and the players approach disciplinary cases.

It's still too early to judge the aftermath of the Brady case, especially with the NFL planning to appeal. But the combined effects of repeated defeats could force Goodell to be “much more careful in the process of determining discipline,” said Tom Dewey, a litigator and arbitration law expert at New York’s Dewey Pegno & Kramarsky.

Edmonds said the Brady decision signals that “players really only need to fear what is actually in the collective bargaining agreement.”

“If the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t provide for these kind of sanctions," Edmonds said, "the commissioner really doesn’t have the power to go beyond that and do whatever he thinks is appropriate."

Another problem facing Goodell may be an erosion of trust among an important constituency: his bosses.

NFL owners stood behind Goodell during the previous scandals, and several urged him to stand firm this time as Berman pushed both sides toward a settlement. It seems unlikely that the Brady episode could cost the commissioner his job if the Rice case did not, but at least one owner reportedly wasn’t pleased with Goodell’s handling of the Brady case. In an interview with Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman last month, that owner signaled an openness to renewed discussions about the league’s disciplinary policies.

“This entire episode,” the unnamed owner told Bleacher Report, “is embarrassing our sport.”

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