In football, several recent suspensions have brought scrutiny to the immense power granted to the NFL commissioner. The Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott cases have had extensive involvement by the Courts. To recap, the commissioner issued a suspension to Brady because of alleged involvement in deflating footballs prior to a playoff game. Elliott was suspended because of alleged domestic issues. In both cases, the suspensions were challenged in Court.
It is important to know that each state has various protections in place for employers. People are not expected to sign away all their rights in exchange for earning an income. Employers who hire workers are expected to behave with certain standards (such as paying a minimum wage, offering rest breaks, etc.). Some states view employment as something closer to a right rather than a privilege. This means that in some states, employers have to provide valid reasons for suspending or firing an employee. This “due process” is at the heart of why the Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott suspensions ended up in Court.
So why does the commissioner of the NFL have so much power to almost unilaterally suspend any player? Because the player’s union allowed it, of course. Basically, the union represents all the players when dealing with the NFL owners. The union negotiates a collective bargaining agreement with the owners that provides the rules under which the players are willing to work. These rules include various topics such as pay, practice hours, retirement, health care, and yes, the powers of the commissioner to suspend players. It is within the framework of this negotiated agreement that the commissioner suspended Brady and Elliott.
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So this raises the question: if the commissioner acted in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement signed with the players, why did these suspensions end up in Court? For the players, the motivation for going to Court was to challenge the commissioner’s judgment and overturn the suspension. But for the Courts, the motivation for review turned out to be completely different.
To be clear, in both cases the Courts had little interest in reviewing the facts behind the allegations against Brady and Elliott. Instead, the Courts were only interested in the process used that led to these players’ suspensions. Was the process fair? And specifically, did the process meet the standards of the Labor Management Relations Act?
In the Brady case, the Court recognized that the collective bargaining agreement was negotiated by both the owners and players. These negotiations were fair and balanced. So the Court was really only reviewing whether the commissioner acted within the scope of his authority and in accordance with the players’ contract when the Brady suspension was handed down. And even if the Court on its own would have viewed the facts differently, as long as the commissioner acted within the scope of his authority, the Court would not interfere. When the Court process was complete, Tom Brady ended up serving his suspension.
As of the writing of this article, the Ezekiel Elliott case is still ongoing. Just like in the Brady case, the Court reviewed the process by which Elliott was suspended. This time, the Court held that the process was unfair to Elliott and Elliott did not receive a fair hearing. Again, the Court did not look into the facts that led to Elliott’s suspension, only the process itself.
In both cases, the Courts were satisfied with the commissioner’s powers as the fact-finding agent. If the players or the union are unhappy with the commissioner having this power, then it will be up to them to negotiate a change when it is time to renew the collective bargaining agreement. The Courts will not intervene in this area.