On Thursday September 3rd, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman ruled that the four-game suspension levied against Tom Brady was unlawful, and immediately nullified. Let’s skip past the manufactured statements by both sides, and the league’s appeal (which could very easily come back and make this very interesting again). Let’s get to the crux of why the ruling was overturned.
In the lengthy ruling, Judge Berman points to one key factor as to why he couldn’t uphold the suspension – the fact that there was no prior knowledge by Brady, or anyone in the NFL, as to what the punishment would be for this kind of rule violation. As someone who adamantly believes that Tom Brady knowingly did something wrong, I can’t actually argue with this thought process. Knowing something is against the rules is one part of the equation, but the penalty for breaking the rule has to be available at the same time. The thought process is that if the punishment isn’t available, it can’t be handed out arbitrarily (for the better or worse). While I agree with the logic and the legal thought process behind it, I still feel cheated by the verdict. As a fan of the NFL, seeing anything that tarnishes the game is upsetting, but seeing someone get away with it is sickening.
What this ruling has done is call into question any suspension of any player in any sport where the punishment for the suspension was not formally written out prior to the suspension being issued. Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy now have an opportunity to come back and get money from the league as a result of suspensions from the league that were not formally laid out in any way. I see a few potential problems with this. It also means that currently any rule without a formal punishment laid out is in essence no rule at all. Yeah, that could get dicey. Yet with all these problems I don’t see how the judge could have ruled any other way unless we want to look at the NFL as an employer, and not an entity.
The ruling has called into question the legal responsibility of the NFL. The courts, players and even the NFL itself all feel as though the proceedings should be treated like a court of law would be, with players having the same rights as someone who is accused of a crime. There needs to be fair and unbiased due process, and people should be innocent until proven guilty. I am all for this. The major problem here is that the NFL is not a court, nor should it have the responsibilities of one. The NFL Players Association goes out of their way to make sure things are as beneficial for the players as possible, and that makes perfect sense as that is who they work for. Most laws the world over and unilaterally decided upon by a governing body. They may be tweaked and twisted over time, but even those changes are done so by a finite few that make the decisions based on a greater good. The collective bargaining agreement in the NFL and other sports make such moves virtually impossible without all parties in agreement. The players don’t want ownership being unreasonably hard on them, and the owners and league can’t have the players doing whatever they feel like without consequence.
Both sides of this process have been burned by the other, to the point where we have arguments for the sake of having arguments. The NFLPA wants to reject anything the NFL puts in front of them on the basis that they did not draft it. The NFL won’t accept anything the NFLPA drafts because it’s intentionally vague and weak. Yet in no other setting where laws are created does the population get a direct say in what is lawful and unlawful, and if they did they won’t get a say on the punishment.
I commend Roger Goodell for what he’s tried to do. Before he took over as Commissioner of the NFL there was rampant belief that football players were not being held accountable for their actions, and that they appeared to be above the law. That was a culture that he tried to change. The system and infrastructure he inherited to do so was broken and the NFLPA was happy with the way it set up, so getting any kind of sweeping change would clearly be difficult. So here we are, years later, and it appears nothing has changed. The NFLPA and the league can’t find common ground to work forward on a framework that would be in the long-term best interest of everyone involved. Players are getting away with rule violations without punishment, and the ability to even administer punishment seems severely compromised. Teflon Tom Brady is legally free from the mess for now, he’ll play the season opener this coming Thursday and life will go on. Kids will admire athletes for their abilities on and off the field. The way they can catch a ball and escape legal trouble with ease. They will grow up with that expectation and that example. It just keeps looking like in the game of accountability and higher standards that we are all losing.