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Federal Court Sides With NFL on Adrian Peterson Punishment

By Christopher Coble, Esq. on August 05, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

NFL players and the NFL Players Association have long complained that Commissioner Roger Goodell is acting as judge, jury, and executioner under the league's disciplinary system. But every now and then, his decisions are reviewed by other, real judges. And in almost all of those cases, the judges side with Goodell and the NFL.

Last month, it was the Second Circuit Court of Appeals reinstating Tom Brady's punishment in Deflategate. And this week, it's the Eighth Circuit upholding Adrian Peterson's suspension and fines from a child-beating incident in 2014. In both cases, federal courts basically told players and their union, "Hey, you get what you bargain for."


The NFL's disciplinary process is laid out in the league's Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed in 2011 with the NFLPA. Article 46 of the CBA grants the Commissioner broad authority to discipline players for "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence, in the game of professional football." It's this authority, without any independent check, that players and the Players Association have been attempting to push back on, with little success.

As Judge Steven Colloton wrote for the three-judge panel in the Peterson case, you may have made a (bad) deal with the devil, but you made the deal:

Allowing the Commissioner or the Commissioner's designee to hear challenges to the Commissioner's decisions may present an actual or apparent conflict of interest for the arbitrator. But the parties bargained for this procedure, and the Association consented to it. See CBA art. 46 § 2(a). It was foreseeable that arbitration under the Agreement sometimes would involve challenges to the credibility of testimony from Goodell or other League employees. When parties to a contract elect to resolve disputes through arbitration, a grievant can ask no more impartiality than inheres in the method they have chosen.

Football and Fairness

The NFLPA, on Peterson's behalf, also argued that his punishment was unfair, the gist being that the league and Goodell altered their disciplinary scheme in the face of the Ray Rice fiasco. Therefore, Peterson wasn't on notice regarding consequences of a code of conduct violation and his punishment was retroactive. But the court wasn't buying that one either:

The Association's fundamental fairness argument is little more than a recapitulation of its retroactivity argument against the merits of the arbitrator's decision. We have never suggested that when an award draws its essence from the collective bargaining agreement, a dissatisfied party nonetheless may achieve vacatur of the arbitrator's decision by showing that the result is "fundamentally unfair." The Association's fairness argument does not fit within the narrow window left open for consideration in Hoffman [the arbitrator assigned to the case], and we therefore conclude that the contention is without merit.

It appears that, as long as the current CBA is in place, Goodell will have the freedom to dole out whatever punishment he sees fit, with little but the NFLPA's token resistance to rein him in.

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