The eventual punishment, if any, imposed on Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson will depend first on the decision of Judge Sue L. Robinson and then, if she imposes any discipline at all and the league appeals, the Commissioner or his designee. Eventually, the courts could get involved.
Charles Robinson of Yahoo Sports reports that the NFL Players Association and Watson’s camp already have decided to sue the league in federal court, if the end result of the process is a full-season suspension.
While the union and Watson are entitled to try, it won’t be easy to win. For starters, judges love it when private parties agree to their own procedures for resolving disputes. The NFL and the NFLPA negotiated the process of imposing discipline under the Personal Conduct Policy. Both sides agreed to revise the approach in 2020, with the disciplinary officer entering the calculation. As a general matter, courts won’t be inclined to burden themselves by second-guessing the unfolding of the steps crafted by management and labor — and the Federal Arbitration Act gives them cover to stay out of such battles.
Complicating matters is the history created by the cases resulting from the suspensions of Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott. Brady, after defeating his #Deflategate suspension in a Manhattan federal court, lost before a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Elliott, who successfully circumvented the New York federal court system and the precedent of the Brady case, initially won relief in a Texas federal court from his Personal Conduct Policy suspension. However, it was determined that he had sued too quickly when he filed his case challenging the final decision of the league before the NFL could file a lawsuit attempting to defend it. The case reverted to the one the NFL filed in New York, and that was that.
That’s where the NFL has a built-in advantage. It can have the paperwork ready to file in the Southern District of New York, and it can press the button literally seconds after the internal ruling becomes official. Basically the league can easily win what is ultimately a rigged race to the courthouse.
The fact that the league and the union have negotiated a new CBA since the Elliot case will make it even harder to attack the current procedures. If there were serious concerns regarding the rules and regulations for imposing discipline under the Personal Conduct Policy, the union could have addressed them when hammering out the new terms. To prevail, the NFLPA will need to show that the league violated its own rules and regulations, in some way.
It won’t be enough to say, “We don’t like the final decision.” Both sides agreed that the disciplinary officer makes the first decision, that the Commissioner or his designee handle the appeal, and that the decision on appeal is final. The federal courts aren’t supposed to be the next level of appeal. The case is supposed to be over. Thus, based on the Brady and Elliott cases, it won’t be easy for Watson to get a federal court to overturn a one-year suspension, if that’s the final result of the agreed internal procedure.