With the ethics rules applicable to lawyers preventing a lawyer from serving as a “neutral” arbitrator in a case involving one of the clients of the lawyer’s firm, the NFL has a fairly basic and compelling response to the potential argument that former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has a conflict of interest, based on the fact that he works for the law firm that represents the NFL in the bounty cases.
The league believes that Tagliabue isn’t a “neutral” arbitrator.
“He’s the commissioner’s designated appeals officer per the CBA process,” NFL spokesman Greg Aiello told PFT via email. “It is the system negotiated with the union for commissioner discipline. He is appointed by the commissioner. He is no different from any other commissioner designee to hear appeals of various disciplinary matters. Those people have included Jeff Pash, Harold Henderson, Bob Wallace and Jay Moyer, and courts have agreed that those individuals, all of whom are affiliated with the NFL, are entirely appropriate for that role.”
The difference flows from the words “neutral” and “impartial.” The law requires the arbitrator to be impartial. The CBA, which has been accepted by the union, allows Goodell to appoint someone who is not neutral.
None of this means a fight isn’t coming over whether Tagliabue’s relationship with Covington & Burling disqualifies him. But the fact that other lawyers who represent the NFL have served as arbitrators in cases involving the NFL could make it considerably harder for the NFLPA to prevail on that point.