The legal challenge to the suspensions imposed on Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith, and Scott Fujita commenced with a pair of grievances aimed at steering the appeal process away from Commissioner Roger Goodell.
It could continue in multiple ways. One avenue comes from Paragraph 15 of the standard player contract. (The language is the same under the 2006 and 2011 labor deals.)
Here’s what it says: “INTEGRITY OF GAME. Player recognizes the detriment to the League and professional football that would result from impairment of public confidence in the honest and orderly conduct of NFL games or the integrity and good character of NFL players. Player therefore acknowledges
his awareness that if he accepts a bribe or agrees to throw or fix an NFL game; fails to promptly report a bribe offer or an attempt to throw or fix an NFL game; bets on an NFL game; knowingly associates with gamblers or gambling activity; uses or provides other players with stimulants or other drugs for the purpose of attempting to enhance on-field performance; or is guilty of any other form of conduct reasonably judged by the League Commissioner to be detrimental to the League or professional football, the Commissioner will have the right, but only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing at which he may be represented by counsel of his choice, to fine Player in a reasonable amount; to suspend Player for a period certain or indefinitely; and/or to terminate this contract.”
The four players were suspended for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football.” Under Paragraph 15, suspensions may be imposed “only after giving Player the opportunity for a hearing at which he may be represented by counsel of his choice.”
The question then becomes whether the players are entitled to a hearing before, or after, the initial decision. It’s a technical legal concept, the difference between due process before and after imposition of discipline. But the league contending that the Commissioner has the right to review the decision that the Commissioner made, a pre-decision hearing could be far more valuable than a post-decision hearing.
It’s unknown at this point whether the players and/or the NFLPA will push this issue, arguing that Paragraph 15 was violated when Commissioner Roger Goodell imposed discipline without first conducting a full hearing. But the argument is available to the players and the NFLPA, and let’s just say I didn’t trip across it while perusing the language of the standard player contract in my spare time.