A federal judge's decision to overturn Tom Brady's four-game suspension may have long-standing ramifications for the NFL, its players and, particularly, commissioner Roger Goodell's role as sole arbitrator in disciplinary matters, experts in sports and labor law said.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman on Thursday nullified the Patriots quarterback's suspension for allegedly being complicit in a scheme to deflate footballs for competitive gain. That, said Jay Reisinger, an attorney who specializes in sports law, could mean Goodell's power will be curtailed.
"I think what will eventually come from this ruling -- not right away, but eventually -- is some form of independent arbitration system," said Reisinger, of the Pittsburgh-based firm Farrell & Reisinger. That would entail renegotiation of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, he said, but this decision, in which Berman said Goodell "dispensed his own brand of industrial justice," could pave the way.
"I am sure that until the system changes and there is an independent arbitrator put in place, the NFL will use Berman's decision as a road map of what not to do in future cases," he said. "They were sloppy . . . The NFL is a little arrogant when it hands out discipline, and that arrogance ended up costing them."
Berman ruled that Brady's suspension was unfair in many ways that had nothing to do with whether he actually knew about the deflated balls used in the AFC title game. Overturning an arbitration ruling is rare, said attorney Jim G. Ryan of Garden City's Cullen & Dykman, but, he said, in this case, it was just.
One issue was that the NFL did not make Brady aware of the potential discipline he faced, Ryan said. "Brady walks in thinking he's fighting a parking ticket,'' he said, "and he's accused of kidnapping the Lindbergh baby."
Another issue, "and this is big and people miss it, is that the original report was done by the NFL law firm and then the same law firm represented the NFL in the arbitration," Ryan said. "It had all the files, all the notes, and Goodell denied access to those files to the Players Association. Brady didn't get a fair shake."
Another possible result, Reisinger said, is that players facing disciplinary action may be more liable to go to court.
"All three other major sports have provisions for independent arbitrators, and the players associations in those leagues and the organizations all have respect for the arbitrators' rulings," Reisinger said. "That's why we don't see this type of litigation" with baseball, basketball and hockey.
Although the NFL plans to appeal Berman's ruling, Reisinger and Ryan do not believe it will be successful.
"I think the decision, once you read it, was extremely fair and extremely detailed," Ryan said. "Normally, arbitrators are not readily overturned, and when a court does overturn one, the Appellate Court does look very closely. Judge Berman was very meticulous. The NFL has an uphill battle."