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National Football League Players Association v. National Football League

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

August 4, 2016

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

         Appeal from United States District Court for the District of Minnesota - Minneapolis

          Before LOKEN, MURPHY, and COLLOTON, Circuit Judges.

          COLLOTON, Circuit Judge.

         During 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.

         Peterson 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.


         The NFL 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, 46.

         The 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.

         The 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).

         Pursuant 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 health treatment.

         The 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, 2014.

         On 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 leniently.

         The 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."

         Adrian 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.

         On 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.

         The 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 League's ...

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