National Football League Players Association, on its own and on behalf of Adrian Peterson, Plaintiff- Appellee,
National Football League; National Football League Management Council, Defendants-Appellants.
Submitted: October 19, 2015
from United States District Court for the District of
Minnesota - Minneapolis
LOKEN, MURPHY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.
COLLOTON, Circuit Judge.
the 2014 football season, National Football League
Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Minnesota Vikings
running back Adrian Peterson indefinitely for "conduct
detrimental to . . . the game of professional football,
" and fined Peterson a sum equivalent to six games'
pay. Peterson's suspension stemmed from his plea of
nolo contendere in November 2014 to a charge of
misdemeanor reckless assault on one of his children. Peterson
appealed his discipline to an arbitrator, who affirmed the
suspension and fine.
petitioned the district court to vacate the arbitration
decision. The court granted the petition, and the League
appeals. After the district court ruled, the Commissioner
reinstated Peterson. He has resumed playing professional
football, and this appeal does not involve his eligibility to
play. The remaining dispute concerns whether the League may
collect the fine imposed by the Commissioner and upheld by
the arbitrator. We conclude that the parties bargained to be
bound by the decision of the arbitrator, and the arbitrator
acted within his authority, so we reverse the district
court's judgment vacating the arbitration decision.
Players Association is the exclusive collective bargaining
representative for present and future players in the National
Football League. Collective Bargaining Agreement pmbl. (2011)
[hereinafter "CBA"]. The Association is party to a
comprehensive collective bargaining agreement with the NFL
Management Council, the bargaining representative of the
League's thirty-two separately owned teams. Id.
Relevant to this appeal, the Agreement prescribes a
comprehensive system governing discipline of players imposed
by teams or the League and provides for the arbitration of
disciplinary appeals by players. Id. arts. 42-43,
Commissioner is the chief executive officer of the NFL.
Article 46 of the Agreement authorizes the Commissioner to
impose discipline for "conduct detrimental to the
integrity of, or public confidence in, the game of
professional football." Id. art. 46, §
1(a). The standard NFL player contract further acknowledges
that the Commissioner has the power "to fine Player in a
reasonable amount; to suspend Player for a period certain
or indefinitely; and/or to terminate this
contract." Id. app. A ¶ 15 (emphasis
added). The Agreement does not define "conduct
detrimental" or prescribe maximum or presumptive
punishments for such conduct.
Agreement establishes an exclusive arbitration process for
resolving disputes over player discipline. Any player
sanctioned under Article 46 for conduct detrimental to the
game has the right to appeal to the Commissioner.
Id. art. 46, §§ 1(a), 2(a). The
Commissioner may hear the appeal himself, or he may designate
one or more persons to serve as hearing officers.
Id. § 2(a).
to Article 46, the Commissioner has promulgated a Personal
Conduct Policy that applies to all players. The Policy
specifies behavior that may be considered "conduct
detrimental, " explains the types of penalties violators
may receive, and describes the procedures for imposing and
appealing Commissioner discipline. Players are advised that
"[d]iscipline may take the form of fines, suspension, or
banishment from the League, " and that violators might
also be required to undergo clinical evaluation or mental
Personal Conduct Policy effective June 1, 2013, listed
various forms of off-the-field conduct, including domestic
violence, that could subject a player to discipline for
conduct detrimental. The Policy does not establish maximum or
presumptive punishments; rather, it provides that discipline
will depend on "the nature of the incident, the actual
or threatened risk to the participant and others, any prior
or additional misconduct . . ., and other relevant
factors." An identical policy was reissued on June 1,
August 28, 2014, Commissioner Goodell sent a letter to all
NFL owners to "communicate our position and strengthen
our policies on domestic violence and sexual assault."
An attached memorandum to all NFL personnel explained that
violations of the Personal Conduct Policy involving domestic
violence would be subject to "enhanced discipline."
These communications followed criticism of the League's
handling of a highly publicized incident of domestic violence
involving Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice. In July
2014, the Commissioner suspended Rice without pay for the
first two games of the 2014 season and fined Rice an
additional week's salary after Rice was charged with
assaulting his then-fiancée. The NFL and Goodell were
sharply criticized in many quarters for treating Rice too
August 2014 communications outlined measures to
"reinforce and enhance" the League's approach
to domestic violence. Specifically, the memorandum announced
that a first domestic violence offense would be subject to a
suspension of six weeks without pay, and that more severe
discipline would be imposed if aggravating circumstances were
present. Goodell's letter to the owners said that the
enhanced discipline was "consistent with [the
League's] Personal Conduct Policy."
Peterson entered the NFL in 2007 and has spent his entire
career with the Minnesota Vikings. On September 11, 2014-two
weeks after Goodell issued the August 2014 communications-a
Texas grand jury indicted Peterson for felony injury to a
child. The indictment alleged that in May 2014, Peterson hit
his four-year-old son with a tree branch as a form of
corporal punishment. The punishment reportedly inflicted
"cuts and bruises to the child's back, buttocks,
ankles, legs, and scrotum, along with defensive wounds to the
child's hands." App. 704. Peterson was quoted as
telling investigators that he would "never eliminate
whooping my kids . . . because I know how being spanked has
helped me in my life." App. 705. After the charge was
announced, Peterson agreed to take a paid leave from the team
pending adjudication of his criminal case.
November 4, 2014, Peterson pleaded nolo contendere
to a reduced charge of reckless assault, a class A
misdemeanor. Two weeks later, Goodell suspended Peterson
indefinitely (for a minimum of the six games remaining in the
2014 season), fined him six-weeks' salary, and required
him to meet with a League-appointed psychiatrist. Goodell
relied on the "baseline discipline" of a six-game
suspension that was announced in the August 2014 memorandum.
Goodell also identified several aggravating circumstances
that merited the lengthy suspension: the age and
vulnerability of the child, the emotional and psychological
trauma inflicted on a young child, and Peterson's lack of
remorse and suggestion that he would not refrain from
engaging in similar conduct in the future. Goodell told
Peterson that he would periodically review Peterson's
progress towards reinstatement, with the first review to
occur in April 2015.
Players Association appealed on Peterson's behalf under
the procedures of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The
Commissioner designated Harold Henderson to hear
Peterson's appeal. Henderson is the president of the
Player Care Foundation, a League-affiliated charity. He
previously served for sixteen years as the League's vice
president for labor relations and chairman of the NFL
Management Council Executive Committee. The Association asked
Henderson to recuse himself from the hearing due to his close
ties to League officials and his role in shaping the