In 2015, the highly publicized “Deflategate” scandal within the National Football League (“NFL”) provided an opportunity for arbitration practitioners and students to analyze a unique arbitration case. Deflategate implicated Tom Brady (“Brady”) of the New England Patriots (“Patriots”), one of the most celebrated football players of today, and it consequently precipitated a contentious arbitration proceeding that has recently concluded in a decision at the federal circuit appeals court level against Brady. The arbitration proceedings cost a minimum of $20 million in legal fees alone. In addition to taxpayer money in carrying the litigation forward through the federal courts, the National Football League Players’ Association (“NFLPA”) also spent significant amounts of time and financial resources in defending Brady and players’ rights against the purportedly unfair arbitration process of Deflategate. Furthermore, the details and results of the arbitration proceedings have become open to the public due to subsequent appeal in federal court.
What made the Deflategate arbitration proceedings unique, however, was the structure within which the proceedings were conducted. The structure was based upon the Collective Bargaining Agreement (“CBA”) reached between the NFL and NFLPA in 2011 for the time period of 2011 to 2020. Specifically, the CBA included a key provision that would be decisive in later disputes during Deflategate: it gave the Commissioner of the NFL, Roger Goodell (“Goodell”), broad authority to discipline NFL players for conduct detrimental to the game of NFL football. Furthermore, the CBA gave Goodell the authority to sit as sole arbitrator in arbitral disciplinary proceedings.