The current labor agreement between the NFL and the NFL Players Association arose via the settlement of an antitrust lawsuit filed by various players (led by the late Reggie White) in the months after the failed 1987 players’ strike. Because the CBA also represents the resolution of a complex piece of litigation, the judge who handled the case has presided over certain disputes arising in connection with the interpretation of the original CBA and all subsequent versions of it.
Last year, the NFL made the extraordinary move of accusing Judge Doty of having an impermissible bias in favor of the union. The league asked Judge Doty to remove himself from further handling of the case, based specifically on comments Judge Doty had made to the media and an alleged private meeting between Judge Doty and union lawyers and representatives.
For example, Judge Doty talked about the league’s complaints regarding the interpretation of the CBA with SportsBusiness Journal in January 2008.
“[NFL Owners] pretend they’re getting beaten around. Well, they did, initially, but they had a position that was not legally sound,” Doty told SBJ. “I think if you ask [former Commissioner Paul] Tagliabue, he would say, ‘The whole thing has come out our way.’ Because, even though they complain about it . . . all they’ve done is make tons of money.”
Judge Doty refused to step aside, and the league appealed the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal trial courts in Minnesota, site of the lawsuit.
The Eighth Circuit has now rejected the appeal, finding no evidence of bias or any other conduct that would make Judge Doty unable to continue.
That said, Judge Doty received a mild rap on the knuckles for choosing to talk to the media about the case.
“We recognize,” the appeals court wrote, “that aside from creating a perception of bias, there is a danger that may flow from even seemingly innocuous statements to the press. Judges should not create the impression that they covet publicity. . . . When judges make gratuitous public comments on issues closely related to judicial duties, they risk giving the impression that they have an uncommon interest and degree of personal involvement in the subject matter. . . . Self-interested behavior in submitting to press interviews may also lead to accusations that a judge will be motivated to decide issues in a way that prompts favorable media attention. . . .
“Thus, although we do not believe that the articles created a reasonable perception of bias . . ., the district judge would have been well advised not to opine publicly about his role in enforcing an ongoing consent decree. “
In English, “Judges who talk to the press might come off as judges who want attention, and judges who want attention might be accused of making decisions aimed at getting more attention. So judges shouldn’t talk to the press.”
The appeals court also affirmed Judge Doty’s ruling in the Mike Vick case, which prohibits teams from recovering a portion of roster bonuses if a player defaults on his contract after receiving the roster bonus.
The ruling gives leverage to the union in conjunction with the ongoing CBA negotiations. If the NFL wants to fully and finally conclude the litigation and adopt a private interpretation and enforcement mechanism not involving Judge Doty, the union will be entitled to an equivalent concession for agreeing to the change in the status quo. Likewise, if the NFL wants to be able to recover portions of previously paid roster bonuses, the league will be required to give up something else in return for that right.