Federal Court Takes the Air Out of Tom Brady’s Season

The reaction of some fanatical National Football League fans to yesterday’s decision from the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in the Tom Brady case was, in many ways, quite predictable. The Court upheld NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s suspension of Brady for his alleged role in the “Deflategate” scandal.

For opponents of Brady’s New England Patriots, it confirmed their view that the team’s quarterback is a liar and a cheater. Fans of Brady and the Patriots, by contrast, likely see it as an excuse to harshly punish one of the NFL’s all-time greats on the flimsiest of evidence.

To some extent, this a classic example of the psychological tendency to see events through the filter of what you want to see. After all, another great quarterback with considerable off-the-field baggage, Brett Favre, was a hero in Green Bay until the day the former Packer suited up for their hated rival, the Minnesota Vikings.

But the legal matter really had more to do with strictly legal issues than rivalries or football. As the court correctly observed: 

Our role is not to determine for ourselves whether Brady participated in a scheme to deflate footballs or whether the suspension imposed by the Commissioner should have been for three games or five games or none at all. Nor is it our role to second-guess the arbitrator’s procedural rulings. Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act. [emphasis added]

Not exactly the stuff of NFL Films, but right on point. Goodell’s authority as arbitrator arose from a contract between the NFL and its players that outlines their legal relationship. The court correctly stated that, under the LMRA, it must:

. . . simply ensure that the arbitrator was “even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority” and did not “ignore the plain language of the contract.”

The court then noted that, under the contract, the Commissioner’s authority is “especially broad” and that both sides had agreed to that authority. Thus, the fact that the evidence may have been flimsy and not enough to make a finding under a statutory standard, this was a standard set forth by their parties in their contract. And generally, as in this case, the court will honor what the parties intended unless there are good public policy reasons not to do so.

The issue was not really what the court thought Brady did, but whether the arbitrator’s conclusion was legally plausible under that broad standard. And a majority thought it was, though a dissenting judge and the lower trial court reached a different conclusion. And that happens often, but the judges in the majority rule the day.

So if you’re a fan of Brady and you think he was treated unfairly, perhaps he was. But the message from this court, anyway, is maybe the players need to negotiate a better contract; one where the Commissioner is not the judge, jury, and executioner.


Posted: 4/26/2016 3:07:07 PM by Editor | with 0 comments

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Thanks for stopping by On the Merits, the first blog from the Texas Center for Legal Ethics. On the Merits will take a close look at significant legal stories with an eye toward addressing the legal myths and misconceptions that turn up in news stories, movies, TV programs, websites, anonymous emails and other forms of mass communications. Our goal at On the Merits is to provide readers with a thoughtful examination of what the media and others are saying about the legal profession and to apply the frequently-absent context of how the legal system actually works.

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