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The NFL suffered a big blow when a district court judge ruled against the league on Adrian Peterson's appeal. The matter isn't over, but it shines a light on Roger Goodell's unwieldy power and the need for a more uniform discipline policy

By Greg A. Bedard
February 27, 2015

U.S. District Court Judge David Doty on Thursday continued to be a thorn in the NFL’s side by siding with the NFLPA and Adrian Peterson on the appeal of the running back's NFL suspension.

Doty vacated the decision made by NFL arbitrator Harold Henderson that upheld Peterson’s suspension through April 15.

I've got some thoughts on this news, but first let's revisit how we got here:

* * *

The Vikings’ star was placed on the Commissioner’s Exempt List (with pay) after the first game of the season following his indictment by a Texas court on charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. Peterson was accused of using a “switch” on his 4-year-old son, which resulted in injuries. On Nov. 4, Peterson pleaded no contest to one count of misdemeanor reckless assault. If he completed his probation, which included a fine, community service and parenting classes, Peterson’s record would be clean.

On Nov. 18, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Peterson without pay for the remainder of the season and would not consider reinstatement before April 15.

On Dec. 12, arbitrator Harold Henderson, a former league executive, upheld Goodell’s discipline of Peterson.

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Doty, who oversees the enforcement of the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, vacated Henderson’s decision on multiple grounds Thursday. Doty found that Henderson, in allowing Goodell to impose new discipline retroactively, “simply disregarded the law of the shop and in doing so failed to meet his duty under the CBA.” Doty also agreed with the NFLPA that Henderson exceeded his authority. “Henderson’s conclusion that the new policy is consistent with the previous policy is contradicted by the Commissioner’s own statements,” Doty wrote. “Here, Henderson strayed beyond the issues submitted by the NFLPA and in doing so exceeded his authority.” Doty didn’t take a position on Henderson’s impartiality because he didn’t have to due to his conclusions on prior issues.

In vacating Henderson’s decision, Doty basically kicked the decision back to the NFL appeals’ process for Henderson or another arbitrator to rule on again but this time in better accordance with the CBA.

The NFL said Thursday afternoon that it has filed notice of appeal to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is usually more conservative than Doty on labor issues.

“We believe strongly that Judge Doty’s order is incorrect and fundamentally at odds with well-established legal precedent governing the district court’s role in reviewing arbitration decisions,” the NFL said in a statement.

Peterson was returned to the Commissioner’s Exempt List pending another decision by Henderson or a decision by the appeals court.

* * *

A few thoughts at this juncture:

• This is a big precedent case for the NFL, so it’s not surprising that the league appealed. Panthers end Greg Hardy is awaiting a decision on league discipline stemming from a domestic violence arrest. Like Peterson, Hardy also landed on the exempt list. Hardy was found guilty of misdemeanor charges in a bench trial, but those charges were dismissed when prosecutors couldn’t find the victim to testify in the subsequent jury trial to which Hardy was entitled under North Carolina law. If Doty’s ruling is allowed to stand, that basically ties the NFL’s hands when it comes to disciplining players for bad acts that happened prior to Goodell's strengthening of the personal conduct policy after the Ray Rice fiasco. Before Rice, the precedent had been the four-game suspension (reduced from six) incurred by Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in 2010. If Doty had allowed Henderson’s ruling to stand, then nothing would be stopping Goodell from giving Hardy the same suspension as Peterson (six games without pay—another 10 with pay in essence—and no reinstatement for start of free agency period). Doty’s decision cleared the way for Peterson to be immediately reinstated. Not surprisingly, the Charlotte Observer reported Hardy would seek immediate reinstatement after the Doty decision. But now, after the NFL’s decision to appeal, it appears to be status quo on Hardy. A suspension could still happen.

• To those in and around the NFL, this is another blow against Goodell’s power and decision making. Both previous landmark cases appealed during his tenure—the Saints’ bounty scandal and Ray Rice—have been struck down or amended by a neutral arbitrator. Henderson’s deep league office ties raised eyebrows when he was appointed by Goodell to hear Peterson’s appeal. Now that Doty has vacated Henderson’s ruling, Goodell is 0-for-3 in major appeals.

• However, to the people most important to the league office (advertisers and corporate sponsors), nothing has really changed for Goodell. Rice, Peterson and Hardy were all removed from the NFL season while dealing with serious personal conduct allegations. How that happened, or whether it should have been allowed after the fact, doesn’t really matter. The NFL and Goodell appear tough on personal conduct issues to the public at large. And don’t think the players haven’t noticed either. One way or another, whether he has to reverse his decisions or invent new punishments on the fly, Goodell is going to sideline that player if there’s enough of a public outcry.

The Peterson case is far from over. Henderson could craft a new appeal decision that makes Peterson happy and keeps Goodell’s wide-ranging punishments viable. The Eighth Circuit, which often sides with the NFL, could set aside Doty’s ruling because he overreached his power, and further embolden Goodell.

You’d hope, at some point, Goodell would wise up and realize if he doesn’t come up with a uniform enforcement policy, he’s going to continue to be on the losing end of these decisions. Based on his history in office, that seems to be a long shot.

NICKEL PACKAGE

Steven Jackson (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images) Steven Jackson (Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

1. This is the time of year when teams begin trimming cap fat by releasing veterans who aren’t performing to their contracts. So far, the top names have been Bucs QB Josh McCown, Lions RB Reggie Bush, Falcons RB Steven Jackson, Chiefs TE Anthony Fasano, Ravens WR/KR Jacoby Jones and Colts DT Ricky Jean Francois. Jean Francois already has landed with Washington, and McCown reportedly is negotiating with the Bills. Bush, Jackson and Fasano are three rock-solid veterans who would be perfect additions to contending teams. Wouldn’t mind seeing Jackson and Bush land with the Colts in a thunder-and-lightning scenario, depending on Indy's plans for the draft. That, however, would leave Jackson in the same scenario he had in Atlanta: poor offensive line.

2. A lot of reporters gleefully regurgitated the screed by Cardinals coach Bruce Arians against quarterbacks who came from college spread offenses. “So many times, you're evaluating a quarterback who has never called a play in the huddle, never used a snap count. They hold up a card on the sideline, he kicks his foot and throws the ball," he said. "That ain't playing quarterback.” Arians should have said, “That’s not playing quarterback in my offense, which still incorporates seven-step drops and relies on the deep passing game.” Old-school NFL offenses like the one Arians has used (very well) over the years are fading. There aren’t that many dropback quarterbacks coming up from colleges, and that’s not going to change anytime soon. That’s why Arians has a 35-year-old Carson Palmer and 30-year-old Drew Stanton as his top two quarterbacks, and no developmental players on the horizon (did you see Ryan Lindley and Logan Thomas last year?) If Arians and others like him in the NFL don’t conform their methods to the 95 percent of quarterbacks coming out of college, they won't have anyone to run their offenses in a couple years.

3. I really should stop being surprised by this, but it’s almost shocking how bad the Steelers’ cap situation is every year at this time. Last year Pittsburgh had to waive goodbye to receiver Emmanuel Sanders (who had a terrific season with the Broncos); this year it could be outside linebacker Jason Worilds. Teams should be in the business of keeping their best young talent, not having to allow it to walk out the door. A year ago, the Steelers placed the transition tag on Worilds to keep him, and now they have to let him hit the market. This isn’t smart business. Neither is annually restructuring contracts (Marcus Gilbert, Maurkice Pouncey and Mike Mitchell so far this year), which only pushes the cap damage down the road, meaning the Steelers will always be tight against the cap.

4. Safety Devin McCourty and the Patriots could be in for a serious contract stare-down before the start of free agency. Safety is now a premium position, and with the dearth of free-agent and draft talent this year, McCourty has a lot of leverage to get a top contract. And I’m not sure the Patriots would pay another top contract in the secondary if their plan is to keep cornerback Darrelle Revis. But I expect McCourty and the Patriots to get something done, amicably, at some point. Most likely scenario: McCourty gets the franchise tag and agrees to a slightly team-friendly deal down the road. He’s not a boat rocker. And there are more important things to him than money. The only way things get contentious is if the Patriots tag McCourty and then he balks at an extension. The Patriots don’t like that (see Welker, Wesley).

5. Best of luck to Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk, who was released by Green Bay after nine seasons. I’ve covered a lot of players in my career, and Hawk stood out because he took a lot of criticism from the media (yes, me) and fans alike, but he never outwardly took it personally. Hawk would always answer your questions thoughtfully, no matter what you wrote about him. Not sure if he realized we had a job to do, or he thought we all didn’t know what we were talking about (probably a little of both), but he was consummate pro. More importantly, he studied, practiced and played all out, and was universally beloved by his teammates and coaches for that. Did Hawk live up to being the fifth overall pick in the 2006 draft? No, but he left a great legacy in that Green Bay locker room. That means more.


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