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Why Deflategate fell flat and what the decision against Brady means for dispute resolution in the NFL

Published 15 August 2016 | Authored by: Dan Werly

Back in December, the author wrote an articledetailing New England Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady’s, sweeping district court victory over the National Football League (NFL) in Deflategate, and even suggested that Brady’s victory may lead to changes in the NFL’s dispute resolution system. 

Since then, Tom Brady’s fortunes have taken an abrupt turn for the worse. The district court opinion,2 which vacated Brady’s four-game suspension, was reversed on appeal3 and Brady’s request to the appeals court to rehear the case was denied. Brady has announced that he will serve the four-game suspension this season, but the Players Association (NFLPA) hasn’t thrown in the towel just yet.


How did the Appellate Court Rule?

The appeals court’s analysisfocused on one issue: did the district court judge overstep his authority in vacating the NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s arbitration decision? In a 2-1 decision, the court found in the affirmative, reversed the district court, and reinstated Brady’s four-game suspension.

In summary, the court ruled that an arbitrator, in this case Commissioner Goodell, must be given wide latitude to determine player discipline, and that a federal court can only disturb an arbitrator’s decision in exceptional circumstances, which did not exist in this case. The court repeatedly emphasized that the parties had collectively bargaining for this system - allowing Commissioner Goodell to act as the arbitrator to player discipline decisions that he gave out -and that Brady and the NFLPA could not now seek judicial intervention to change something that they previously agreed to. Describing Goodell’s power, the court stated:

Although this tripartite regime may appear somewhat unorthodox, it is the regime bargained for and agreed upon by the parties, which we can only presume they determined was mutually satisfactory.5

The opinion cemented the validity of the NFL’s dispute resolution system and gives Commissioner Goodell nearly unchecked power moving forward. For example, the court ruled that in Goodell’s written arbitration opinion he is not required to “fully explain his reasoning”, and that Goodell has the full authority to determine the severity of the discipline. The court went on to point out that even if a specific provision in the NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement addresses the conduct at issue, Goodell can instead use his power to discipline for “conduct detrimental” to the game of football (and potentially levy a harsher penalty). Unless the arbitrator uses his “own brand of industrial justice” and ignores the collective bargaining agreement, a case-by-case determination not found to have occurred here, courts will not overturn an arbitrator’s ruling. Obviously, this is a very troubling ruling for NFL players and the NFLPA, who have long complained that Goodell’s ability to act as judge, jury, and executor exceeds the language of the CBA.


Brady’s Rehearing Request

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About the Author

Dan Werly

Dan Werly

Dan is an experienced sports lawyer and editor-in-chief of the sports law website TheWhiteBronco.com. He spent the last 6+ years working at two large U.S. law firms, including most recently practicing in Foley & Lardner LLP sports law practice group. He has experience working with professional teams, leagues, universities, and athletes on a wide array of legal issues with a general focus on complex civil litigation. Additionally, he is now a featured columnist and sports law expert for BleacherReport.com and a freelance sports attorney and consultant.

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