Score a victory for workplace justice. On November 28, arbitrator Barbara S. Jones, a former U.S. District Court judge, ruled that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell abused his discretion when he suspended Rice indefinitely following a previous two-game suspension for the same incident. Rice, as most know by now, was suspended two games and fined an additional week’s salary for hitting his then-fiancée Janay Palmer and knocking her unconscious inside an Atlantic City hotel elevator in February.
Footage of Rice dragging Janay outside the elevator was available immediately and outraged many. Then in early September a second videotape showing what happened inside the elevator was released, leading to the Ravens cutting Rice and to the NFL suspending him indefinitely. Goodell justified this second (and more severe) penalty on the fact that Rice gave a “starkly different sequence of events” than what was captured on the second video. In overturning the NFL’s suspension Judge Jones found:
- While Article 43 of the NFL’s CBA (dealing with Club discipline) provides for just cause, Article 46 (dealing with League discipline) does not. This means Rice had to overcome a higher “abuse of discretion” standard. In other words, the NFL would prevail so long as the imposition of discipline was not arbitrary or capricious.
- Due to the lack of just cause language in Article 46, Rice had the burden of proof. (Usually in disciplinary cases governed by just cause the employer has the burden of proving the penalty imposed was fair in light of the employee’s misconduct).
- Contrary to Goodell’s assertion, Rice did not mislead the Commissioner in describing what happened inside that elevator.
- The imposition of the second suspension was “based upon the same incident, and the same known facts about that incident.” (Translation: the tape from inside the elevator didn’t tell Goodell anything he didn’t already know).
- Goodell’s imposition of the indefinite suspension was arbitrary and therefore improper under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.
In reaching this decision, Judge Jones had to assess the credibility of Rice, his wife, Janay and NFLPA witnesses against that of Goodell and other NFL executives who testified at the arbitration hearing. In ruling for Rice, Judge Jones found Rice et al. to be more credible than Goodell and his team.
This decision deals a severe blow to the Commissioner and to the exclusive authority he currently holds in matters involving player discipline. An arbitrary and capricious standard is a low standard for the League to meet (and a tough one for a player to overcome). That Goodell fell short of this standard is a clear indictment of his decision to suspend Rice a second time and explains why so many NFL players lack confidence in him and the League when it comes to player discipline generally. More importantly, whether the NFL admits it or not, Rice’s victory signals the beginning of the end to Goodell’s exclusive authority over player conduct.
Why put it off? Now is the time to modify the NFL CBA to provide for issues of player discipline to be heard and decided by a neutral arbitrator. That is the only way to restore player and public confidence in the Commissioner and the NFL. It would also put the NFL on par with the other major sports leagues and with the vast majority of unionized workplaces that provide for arbitrator review of employee discipline. If the Commissioner tries instead to hold on to his exclusive authority it will most certainly result in a prolonged fight with the NFLPA that will make the Ray Rice affair seem like a walk in the park.
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