The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has reinstated the four game suspension imposed by the NFL on New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his role in the infamous “Deflategate” scandal. This decision overturned a district court decision which vacated an arbitration award issued by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell enforcing the suspension.
While this decision will inevitably spark further debate and controversy within the sports world, it should not come as a surprise from a labor law perspective. As we previously commented, the district court’s original ruling overturning the suspension was quite unusual, given the high degree of deference that courts typically give to labor arbitration awards. The Second Circuit obviously agreed, stressing that a “federal court’s review of labor arbitration awards is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential—indeed, the most deferential in the law.” Under this deferential standard, the Court of Appeals held that Commissioner Goodell properly exercised his broad discretion, and that this case “is not an exceptional one that warrants vacatur.”
The lower court originally relied on three rationales for overturning the suspension: 1) Brady had no notice that his actions rose to the level of conduct detrimental to the game, (2) Brady had no notice that he could be suspended for such conduct, and (3) Brady was not afforded adequate due process during the arbitration hearing. The Second Circuit rejected each of these rationales as not being sufficiently deferential to Goodell’s authority as an arbitrator.
Over the next few days, this decision is certain to be debated ceaselessly on ESPN and other sports media outlets. The Second Circuit’s decision, however, puts the legal debate to rest by reaffirming the finality of labor arbitration awards.