The decision by National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for four games as a result of his alleged role in the Deflategate scandal is couched in legal terms. There are hearings, appeals, legal briefs, discovery, and jargon typically associated with the judicial system.
But the process Tom Brady finds himself in now is starkly different from a court of law in many ways, from the speed with which it can operate, to the ultimate arbiter of Brady’s fate.
Brady is being punished for allegedly arranging – or at least allowing – for footballs used by the team in the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts this year to be deflated to pressures below the league’s minimum level of 12.5 pounds per square inch. An investigation headed by prominent attorney Ted Wells on behalf of the NFL did not find definitive proof that he did so, but found it was highly likely that he was at least “generally aware” of the practice.
Brady has said that he prefers less-inflated balls because they give him a better grip, though he has denied asking Patriots staff to deflate game balls below the allowable limit. He and his representatives have challenged both the investigation’s findings and the legitimacy of the penalty.
“The discipline is ridiculous and has no legitimate basis,” said Brady’s agent, Don Yee, in a written statement, adding that in his view “this outcome was pre-determined.”
According to the Collective Bargaining Agreement struck between the National Football League Players Association and the NFL itself, Brady has three business days from the date he receives written notice of his suspension to either file an appeal or to give the NFLPA permission to appeal on his behalf.
Brady has indicated that he will appeal, and under the CBA, the process will be a lot speedier than most anything you might see in civil court. An appeal hearing is to begin within ten days of his delivering a notice of appeal.
Once the hearing is concluded, the “hearing officer” is directed to deliver a written ruling “as soon as practicable.” And once that ruling is delivered, there is no higher authority to appeal to. According to the CBA, the hearing officer’s ruling “will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement with respect to that dispute.”
One of the biggest questions right now is who that designated hearing officer will be. Under the CBA, the NFL commissioner and the executive director of the NFLPA each year “appoint one or more designees to serve as hearing officers.”
However, the agreement also contains a clause that allows Goodell, at his own discretion, to serve as the hearing officer in an appeal of his own ruling:
It was likely that was the provision Yee had in mind when he drafted his statement, which read in part, “We will appeal, and if the hearing officer is completely independent and neutral, I am very confident the Wells Report will be exposed as an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic.”
Yee went on to blast the NFL’s disciplinary process for some of its past failures.
“The NFL has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that often are overturned when truly independent and neutral judges or arbitrators preside, and a former federal judge has found the commissioner has abused his discretion in the past, so this outcome does not surprise me,” he wrote.
Indeed, Goodell has been widely criticized for disciplinary decisions that seem to have little connection to the severity of the behavior being punished.
Whether or not Goodell allows another hearing officer to take on the appeal – he did so in the case of former Baltimore linebacker Ray Rice, who was suspended indefinitely for assaulting his then-fiancée – is the biggest question that needs answering right now. But the handling of the Brady case will only raise more questions about the NFL’s ability to effectively police its own.
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