NEW YORK — The NFL Players Association told a federal appeals court Monday that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was making a “sweeping grab for power” in the “Deflategate” controversy and a judge was right to reject his handling of the scandal.
Lawyers for the union made the claim in papers filed with the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan. A three-judge panel will hear oral arguments in March before issuing a decision weeks or months afterward.
The appeals court is hearing the National Football League’s appeal of a judge’s ruling that nullified the league’s four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
The union said Goodell ignored the collectively bargained agreement between the league and the union when he upheld the suspension in July.
“It is a sweeping grab for power that is contrary to collectively bargained penalties,” union lawyers wrote.
They said the league has for decades provided all players with hundreds of pages defining league policies including conduct detrimental to the game, with some penalties collectively bargained. Under “equipment violations,” the union said, the league provides notice in bold, italicized type that “First offenses will result in fines.”
The union has asked the court to uphold the decision issued by Judge Richard Berman just before the season began. Berman said the league’s discipline of Brady was based on “several significant legal deficiencies,” including that it failed to adequately provide notice that a lengthy suspension could result from deflating footballs.
Union lawyers noted that the NFL’s investigation of deflated balls at January’s AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts reached a conclusion only that it was “more probable than not” that two Patriots ball handling employees deliberately released air from Patriots game balls. The Patriots won, 45-7.
Goodell affirmed Brady’s suspension in July, concluding Brady conspired with his team’s ball handlers to underinflate balls and then obstructed the probe, including by destroying his cell phone.
The union said no player in NFL history has previously been suspended for obstructing an NFL investigation, so Brady had no notice of that.
League lawyers did not immediately comment, though they said in papers filed with the 2nd Circuit in October that Berman ignored decades of legal precedents and approached the case through a “fundamentally flawed” analysis, refusing to accept Goodell’s view of the facts.
“The district court egregiously overstepped the bounds of its proper role,” the NFL said. “Where lower courts have committed a similar error, appellate courts have not hesitated to reverse. The court should do so here.”