The NFL maligned one of its star employees through the press, planting conspiracy theories that were later proven to be incorrect.
Then it punished that player based solely on a conspiracy theory using a disciplinary system so arbitrary that Sports Illustrated formally renamed it the “Roger Goodell Random Punishment Generator.”
And on Monday, a federal appeals court decided all of that was A-OK.
The four-game suspension NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell arbitrarily levied to Tom Brady—for potentially deflating footballs before winning the 2015 AFC Championship Game—is back on. The judges ruled, basically, that it doesn’t matter if the New England Patriots quarterback did anything wrong. The NFL is now free to punish its players as it chooses, even if it’s over the mere appearance of malfeasance.
“Our role is not to determine for ourselves whether Brady participated in a scheme to deflate footballs or whether the suspension imposed by the commissioner should have been for three games or five games or none at all,” the judges said. “Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act.”
That’s all well and good. Until you talk to a legal expert.
“They screwed up,” said Roger Abrams, who teaches sports law at Northeastern University. “The whole decision is based on one fundamental error: The commissioner was not acting as an arbitrator. This is not arbitration. It’s a managerial decision.”
Since it was a managerial decision, Abrams said, the standard should have been that the NFL “can do anything but stand on their head,” as long as it’s not arbitrary and capricious. Lower court Judge Richard Berman had already ruled that the punishment was “fundamentally unfair” based on that standard.
This court, however, viewed Goodell as an arbitrator, even when the league effectively acknowledged just two weeks ago that, in cases like this, he isn’t.
Goodell, remember, assigned out an investigation to Ted Wells that culminated in a 243-page report, and then handed off punishment duties VP Troy Vincent. The NFL confirmed on April 11 that Goodell couldn’t hand off those powers if he wanted to act as an arbitrator, an admission that at the time was viewed as a massive whoops moment for the NFL.
Well, whoops, it didn’t matter at all. Just as it always tends to with the NFL.
“We see no impropriety and certainly no fundamental unfairness because the resolution of this matter fell well within the broad discretion afforded arbitrators,” the decision states.
Don’t forget, of course, that this was a “fundamentally fair” system run by a league that leaked a report stating 11 of 12 game footballs were substantially deflated when, whoops again, it turns out just one was.
And don’t forget, either, that this is the same “fundamentally fair” system that allowed domestic abusers to get two-game suspensions that become indefinite suspensions while, whoops once more, potentially deflated footballs will run you four games.
Actually, go ahead and forget it.
We’ve been talking about deflated footballs for 15 months, while the league’s players are dying from football.
Just try to remember how good the NFL is at railroading its own players—on and off the field—as it unravels.
“What this is,” said Abrams, “is a reaffirmation of the rule that commissioners win.”