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Brady's victory further deflates Goodell's authority

by J.W. Miller on 09/03/15

Roger Goodell is not exactly having a good decade. In what seems to be more and more of a pattern, the NFL Commissioner today was humbled once again by the legal system when a federal judge vacated the NFL’s four-game suspension of New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady, giving him a win in the so-called “Deflategate” legal saga that has consumed the NFL for the past seven months. The decision paves the way for the reigning Super Bowl winning quarterback to start the season with his team next week. Goodell quickly announced that the NFL will appeal the decision. Brady did not immediately comment.

The NFL’s loss is another legal setback for Goodell, who has now lost on a handful of off-field incidents, including the 2012 “Bountygate” scandal, in which Saints players stood accused of injuring opponents for cash rewards. All player suspensions were vacated after Goodell appointed former commissioner Paul Tagliabue as independent arbitrator, although Saints fans were still upset that suspensions of Coach Sean Payton, GM Mickey Loomis and coaches Joe Vitt and Gregg Williams were allowed to stand. Goodell’s year-long suspension of former Ravens running back Ray Rice was overturned by an independent arbitrator on the grounds that it did not comply with the Collective Bargaining Agreement, since Rice was initially suspended two games.

Some Who Dats may be enjoying gleeful satisfaction at Goodell's loss, but I side with the commissioner on this issue. Commissioners have always been subject to interpretation of the CBA, despite the fact that a labor agreement reached in arm’s length negotiations is intended to avoid third-party action. But the NFL Players Association, which doesn’t always like the agreements it reaches, knows it has the legal system in its back pocket. The NFLPA has made it a quest to gradually erode the concept of Commissioner Discipline, although it always seems to survive each round of collective bargaining. NFLPA leaders have for years conducted their union like the United Mineworkers or the Teamsters, old-time unions dedicated to throwing an industry into chaos. The NFL reminds historians of capitalists of a century ago, under constant attack by anarchists and bomb-throwers, who seem to be winning the modern-day battles. 

Commissioners have had their rulings thrown back in their face before. Even Pete Rozelle was humbled by the courts when Vikings QB Joe Kapp and Colts TE John Mackey objected to the practice of a perpetual option on a player’s contract – commonly called the “Rozelle Rule.” They went to court and the rule was considered a violation of antitrust law. That was an early step on the circuitous path that led to free agency.

But Goodell’s recent record at having his authority squelched has to be a major concern for the 32 team owners who hired him and who pay him not to embarrass them. That is exactly the description that some media pontificators used after the decision was revealed. Adam Schefter of ESPN called the decision “an embarrassment” for the NFL. Bob Ley of Sportscenter called it a “major defeat” for the Commissioner. But this could be far more than that. 

The practical effect of Brady’s exoneration and the previous reductions of Goodell’s discipline could herald a callous and continuous disregard for the rules. Minutes after the decision was announced, suspended Cowboys DE Greg Hardy said he is considering an appeal of his four-game exile for domestic violence, which already was reduced from a ten-game suspension. So what's next? So what if a violator is caught and is penalized? He can simply call the NFLPA, have its legal team file an appeal and have the penalty reduced or nullified. 

That invites chaos, much like something my old boss and Saints GM Jim Finks told me years ago. “If you don’t enforce the rules, you don’t have rules.”

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