NFLPA (re: Adrian Peterson) v. NFL Lawsuit Has Begun
To quote one of history's greatest boy bands, "Let me tell you the story about the call that changed my destiny."
The NFLPA has thrown down the gauntlet in its gorgeously constructed 75-page claim. One recent phone call could be the tipping point needed for those possessing the ability to make changes in the NFL's processes to take action against the League's variable handling of personal conduct violations. A recording of a phone conversation from November 12 suggests that Troy Vincent, an NFL executive, "promised" Adrian Peterson that he would receive credit during his time on the commissioner's exempt list and only receive a two-game suspension after which he would be reinstated. Days later, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Peterson indefinitely. The arbitrator upheld the suspension and denied Peterson's appeal on Friday, and the NFLPA responded today with formal legal action. So, a district court in Minnesota has that aforementioned ability now.
The NFLPA claims that the arbitrator's decision was biased, unfair, and conflicting with the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The NFL's response has been predictable so far, arguing that Peterson failed to attend the meeting required and, therefore, the discipline was warranted. Although the phone call recording was presented into evidence for arbitration, the arbitrator sided with the NFL. Vincent himself testified that he never promised Peterson anything but that he urged him to "go through the process and all things will be considered." Questions at issue include whether Vincent was under direction of the commissioner on the call, whether he was acting in his executive capacity on the call, whether the two-game suspension was contingent on attending the meeting Goodell wanted, whether NFL executives are competent enough to handle the union members' actions and concerns, and whether a promise was actually ever made based on the plain language and what could be implied in their conversation.
Peterson expressed his disappointment - not his lack of surprise - with the appeal's denial. "I was hoping that, by him hearing the evidence, that the would do the right thing with what was presented to him -- knowing that my incident, just like Ray Rice's incident, happened during the old CBA, not the new process they're trying to lay on me," Peterson stated. So, it makes sense that Peterson will risk losing or leaving his NFL job once he is reinstated on April 15 because he has contemplated various "what-if" scenarios.
Arbitration's Role in the Administrative Process
Arbitration is a form of alternative dispute resolution where the parties try to settle the dispute before taking legal action in court. Often, a contract contains a clause where the bound parties agree to submit the dispute to arbitration to save money and time and to avoid resentment that tends to accompany litigation. A third party, whether it be agreed upon by both parties or selected by one following contractual terms, makes a determination that the parties agree to be bound by and comply with. What is different about arbitration relative to a trial is that there are simplified rules of evidence in arbitration rather than the rigid evidence rules we hear about in Law and Order (whether those are accurate portrayals is another issue). Overall, arbitration is an informal process that benefits "administrative" bodies like a professional sports league with teams across different jurisdictions and with a unique product specially valued by the public for being exactly what it is. Arbitration allows for the least amount of interference in the sport's production, is cost-effective, and keeps the courts, who likely are not well-acclimated with sports operations, from tampering with the product.
Here, Goodell selected former NFL executive Harold Henderson to sit as arbitrator, hear each side's arguments, and issue a ruling. In upholding Goodell's disciplinary determination, Henderson wrote that "[w]hile the discipline assessed is indeed greater than in most prior cases, this is arguably one of the most egregious cases of domestic violence in this Commissioner's tenure." Therefore, he could find no basis to conclude "that the discipline imposed is either unfair or inconsistent." For your information, Goodell obviously appointed Henderson because 95 percent of the time he has ruled in Goodell's (the NFL's) favor. Unlike Ray Rice's appeal, this arbitrator was not neutral or "unbiased."
The Court's Role in a Dispute Between a League and a Players' Association
True, the decision at arbitration is final and binding with respect to its tribunal, but it is not a judicial decision. It is a separate private mechanism distinct from the court system. Here, arbitration was a creature of contract, and the same contract says the players also have the right to try and get the arbitrator's final decision overruled in district court. Therefore, trial is an option open to NFL players unsuccessful in their appeal. Considering the level of passion surrounding recent NFL handlings, this lawsuit was expected.
The problem: Courts almost never turn over arbitrators' decisions.
Courts have the power to overrule and reverse an arbitrator's ruling, but they will give discretion to those who originally saw the evidence and heard the initial arguments. We like arbitration and want to encourage it. If courts are overturning decisions reached in arbitration frequently, it discredits the system. Additionally, arbitrators will have expertise many times in the particular area, whereas a trial court has basic knowledge of the law of the land generally. Furthermore, when it comes to sports particularly, courts steer clear from making a change to the game or its operations because they do not want to do something incorrectly and ultimately taint or ruin the product. This means that sports are basically self-governing unless they do something so fundamentally flawed that any judge would have to take action where, usually, most judges would never dream to take action.
I urge you to take the time to read through portions of the NFLPA's petition. Here's the link again. I believe they have a case and that they should win, but because the arbitrator upheld the NFL's initial suspension, the NFLPA is entering what would be a difficult battle for an ordinary challenger and what is beyond "rare" and on the verge of impossible for a professional sports players association.