Judge Richard Berman turned Roger Goodell’s desk over and spilled its embarrassingly sparse contents onto the floor. Goodell’s imperious conduct, faulty reasoning, and vanity-driven clutching at authority in the Tom Brady case were all exposed in a 40-page decision of measured legal language. Lesson to first-year law students: Collective bargaining agreements don’t give an NFL commissioner the right to act like a petty prince.
Goodell pushed a bad case purely out of hubris and overconfidence, sure of finding a friendly federal judge to cooperate with his power-consolidating agenda. But the days of preferential treatment are over for the NFL – and for Goodell personally.
One byproduct of the Brady decision will be a dawning awareness by NFL owners that they need a more worldly and less entitled man to run the league office at 345 Park Avenue, to replace the hermetically sealed-in arrogance of Goodell’s reign.
Goodell has never worked anywhere but the NFL; he started there as a panting intern in 1982, during the heart of an era summed up by Tex Schramm’s infamous statement to players’ union chief Gene Upshaw: “We’re the ranchers, you’re the cattle.” Goodell’s entire tenure has been imbued by his fundamental attitude that, as NFL management, he wielded a special and unassailable boots-on the-porch authority backed by wealth. His act simply doesn’t play anymore, whether it’s failing to grasp that domestic violence is a complex human resources issue as opposed to a matter of a two-game suspension, or his failure to recognize that his evasions on the workplace issues of head trauma and drug-masking beg for federal interference, as once was imposed on the coal kings regarding black lung.
A decisive document stands out in the literature of Deflategate, and it’s not the dog-eared Wells report, with which Goodell sought to suspend Brady for four games over a vague unproven allegation he was “generally aware” of a ball-boy plot to suck the air out of footballs in the AFC championship game. The content of the Wells report wasn’t even questioned by Berman. Rather, the critical document that got Goodell overturned was his own incompetently written decision as an arbitrator, a sheaf of papers full of wrenching distortions and irrational legal leaps, which radiated Goodell’s supercilious high-dudgeon persona. Berman bought not a single word of it.
Berman’s ruling provides a devastating bookend to Goodell’s. It’s the difference between a professional athlete, and a stone amateur who says, “I could have played this game if I just hadn’t blown out my knee.” The NFL’s counsel tried to argue that arbitration is meant to be binding and therefore Berman was obliged to show “deference” to Goodell’s judgment no matter how flawed. But Berman rejected the notion right off the top with a wealth of case law. Goodell, he ruled, “is not free to merely dispense his own brand of industrial justice.” Boom.
There were “several significant legal deficiencies” in the process Goodell oversaw, Berman continued. There was Goodell’s failure to notify Brady of what offense he was being charged with or disciplined for. There was his summary high-handed decision to “improperly” deprive Brady’s counsel of any background documents or notes on the investigation.
Goodell’s “inadequacy” on due process was such that Berman said he didn’t even need to decide other major claims made by Brady. Such as the claim that Goodell was “evidently partial,” that he totally departed from the factual conclusions of the Wells report in his reasoning for the draconian four-game penalty, and that he so publicly wedded himself to the conclusions of the Wells report before hearing Brady’s appeal, he made it impossible for him to reach a contrary conclusion.
All in all, it’s a portrait of total incompetence by Goodell, who nonetheless announced his intention to keep pursuing the case, saying, “We will appeal today’s ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game.” Now he’s truly rolling the dice, out of desperation to recoup what he has lost. He’s hoping a Second Circuit appeals court will find for him on the narrowest possible procedural grounds: that arbitration shouldn’t be overturned even with idiotic errors.
The Brady case is a huge loss for the NFL. It has opened the league to legal challenges from every dog-fighter and wife-beater it seeks to discipline for workplace violations. It’s the biggest threat to control of its affairs since Al Davis won the right to relocate the Oakland Raiders. And it’s all the result of a terrible temperamental flaw in Goodell.
The Brady case is really about one man’s immoderate need to horsewhip others. Taken with other anecdotes of Goodell over the years, a picture emerges of a stubborn desire to break those who oppose or question him, to bend them to his will when it comes to his personal authority. In Kent Babb’s excellent profile of Goodell, a player involved in the 2011 collective bargaining agreement remembered how Goodell would flush red with fury and stalk out of the room when his proposals were rejected. Another excellent profile by ESPN’s Don Van Natta a few years ago contained a similar story. An NFL assistant coach was stopped for suspicion of driving under the influence. The offense was reduced to reckless driving, and his lawyer pled for mercy from Goodell in a disciplinary hearing, telling Goodell that the coach had a previously unblemished record.
Goodell stood up and turned bright red, and screamed at the attorney not to “lecture him about what was right and wrong.” He stormed out of the room, and both fined and suspended the coach.
Then there was his reaction in the news conference when he first announced the hiring of Ted Wells to conduct the Brady investigation, and CNN sports anchor Rachel Nichols questioned him over whether Wells could be truly independent, given how much work his firm gets from the league. Goodell condescendingly sneered at her for pinpointing what would turn out to be the legal crux of the matter.
The man does not belong in his post. That’s clear now. Goodell has proven to be an entitled legacy hire lacking in intelligence or real-world experience. Berman’s impeccably neutral language in his decision serves only to highlight Goodell’s shortcomings as a leader who can manage complex situations. The NFL is comprised of 32 large-egoed billionaires who employ nearly 1,800 large-egoed millionaires, all of them envious, querulous and occasionally paranoid competitors. Goodell’s one and only job is to arbitrate quarrels with reason and dispassion, so as to instill public confidence in the league. He has totally failed.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org