A Legal Consideration of the NFL’s Most Talked About Court Case
By Jason Lese
At this point, most Americans have heard about the winning appeal by Tom Brady, the superstar quarterback for the New England Patriots, of his four game suspension from the NFL. Brady was suspended by commissioner Roger Goodell for his supposed role in deflating footballs during the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts in 2015. The Patriots won the game 45-7.
And no, Patriots fans, this victory for Brady does not vindicate him for his role in deflating footballs. Actually, an investigative report indicates “it is more probable than not” that Brady was aware equipment staff members were deflating the footballs to give the quarterback a better grip. Interestingly en ough, Judge Berman, the federal judge who ruled on this case, did not focus on this investigative report.
Instead, Judge Berman considered whether or not the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which is in essence the constitution of the NFL, was violated when the NFL investigated Brady. This case ponders whether the NFL fairly conducted its investigation and punishment of Brady.
To defeat Brady’s appeal, the NFL simply needed to demonstrate it was consistent and fair with its proceedings on Brady, a relatively low bar to meet.
The NFL presented a convincing defense. Mr. Goodell representation asserted that Brady’s suspension was elicited by actions that are “detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of professional football” pursuant to the “Integrity of the Game Certification,” a policy that states tampering with team equipment is prohibited. And Article 46 of the CBA, although ambiguous, appears to grant the Commissioner the capacity to enforce disciplinary action for violations of such policies.
Brady’s attorneys countered, pointing out the manual containing information about the “Integrity of the Game” policy is given to owners, presidents, general managers, and head coaches, but not players. As a player, Brady was never cognizant of the policy that was used as the basis for his punishment. Fortunately for the quarterback, the CBA requires that players have advance notice of the specific policy and penalties to which they could be subjected. In other words, Brady could not be deemed culpable for an action he did not formally know was illegal.
While the NFL attempted to substantiate Brady’s “general awareness” of the violation, no player in the history of the NFL has ever been suspended on the basis of a “general awareness.”
There exists precedent to complement Brady’s argument. In 2014, Adrian Peterson, the star running back of the Minnesota Vikings, appealed his own suspension from the NFL for domestic violence issues. Peterson’s lawyers used a virtually identical argument, claiming Peterson had no knowledge of the punishments he could be facing for his actions. Peterson won his appeal.
Further support for Brady’s exoneration lies with a delegation of powers matter. It was argued by Brady’s lawyers that the punishment was formed after an improper delegation of authority by Mr. Goodell to one of his subordinates, NFL executive President Troy Vincent. The NFL’s press release on Brady’s punishment states Mr. Goodell “authorized the discipline that was imposed by [Vincent],” indicating it was Mr. Vincent, not Mr. Goodell, who determined Brady’s punishment. However, the CBA does not grant anyone, including Mr. Vincent, but the Commissioner the power to impose such punishments, so it appears Mr. Vincent assumed a power he did not possess.
In addition to these indications that the NFL was neither consistent nor fair with its proceedings on Brady, the NFL simply did not have significant evidence to prosecute Brady. The Investigative Report did not definitively find, at least to the extent that a prosecution could hang its hat on, that Brady actually knew about any ball deflation at the game, nor did it find that Brady instructed or authorized any ball deflation.
Brady’s victory in this case is a victory for NFL players, for an opposite outcome would result in a “smoking gun” precedent that would grant future commissioners the unrestricted capacity to punish players like Brady and Peterson for reasons ignorant to players.
This case is also a massive blow to Mr. Goodell, whose powers, it appears, are unsustainable in a court of law.