More than six months after the New England Patriots won the AFC Championship game, the NFL on Tuesday upheld a four-game suspension levied against quarterback Tom Brady for his role in using underinflated footballs used in that game.
The ruling by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell—who appointed himself to hear the appeal—comes more than a month after Brady appealed the initial suspension. Following the NFL’s ruling, Tom Brady authorized the NFL Players Association to take up his case in federal court.
Here, Richards Professor of Law Roger Abrams, an expert on sports and labor law, discusses the appeals process, the legal ramifications, and what could come next as a result of the decision.
It took more than a month for the NFL to make its ruling after hearing Brady’s appeal. As the arbiter who heard the appeal, what factors might NFL Commission Roger Goodell have considered before making his ruling?
The commissioner needed to determine whether Tom Brady acted in a manner that was “detrimental to the integrity, or public confidence in, the professional game of football.”
Goodell had already heard the arguments made by the NFL Players Association, and thus he attempted to respond in his opinion based on the record of the hearing. He reached two startling conclusions. First, that Tom Brady actively participated in a conspiracy to violate the rules and second, that Brady deliberately destroyed his cellphone to undermine the investigation. In fact, there is insufficient evidence in the record to support either of these conclusions.
The NFL Players Association said it would take legal action on Brady’s behalf if the suspension was upheld. If the union follows through, what will that entail and does the NFLPA have legal ground on which to stand?
The NFL has already brought the matter to federal court in New York City, seeking to preserve a “home field advantage.” It is likely, however, that the case will be transferred to the federal court in Minneapolis where Judge David Doty has heard NFL appeals for decades.
The NFLPA has solid legal grounds upon which to stand based most recently on Judge Doty’s decision setting aside the discipline of (Minnesota Vikings running back) Adrian Peterson. In the meanwhile, however, the union will seek a temporary injunction, which would allow Brady to play this fall pending the court’s determination on the merits. The court is likely to grant the injunction.
How would a legal investigation differ from the NFL’s?
It is possible that the parties will seek depositions taken under oath of the persons involved. The court will also have subpoena power that can be used to compel a person to participate.
The NFL has bought itself a lawsuit it cannot win on the merits and that will undermine the business goodwill of an enterprise that nets $10 billion a year. The commissioner’s decision on Tuesday will be recognized someday as the beginning of the end of his flawed tenure.