Deflategate Ruling Checks NHL Power In Court Case

It's all in the (CBA's) details

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Mar 16, 2017 at 11:58 AM ET

A district judge struck a blow to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s authority in a ruling on Wednesday and, notably, did so by citing the same court opinion that granted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell the ability to wield virtual autonomy over his league.

When the Second Circuit appeals court reinstated Tom Brady’s four-game Deflategate ban, the panel did so by arguing that the district court’s power to review an arbitrator’s decision was “very limited.” In that case, Goodell himself was the collectively bargained arbitrator, and his power was affirmed.

The hockey ruling stemmed from a incident on Jan. 27, 2016, when Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman struck linesman Don Henderson, which resulted in a concussion. Bettman suspended him 20 games for an apparent cross-check with intent to injure; an arbitrator later reduced that ban to 10 games. Wideman himself, as would be later diagnosed, had a concussion as well, and the arbitrator, Georgetown University law professor James Oldham, could not deduce any intent.

In making her ruling on Wednesday, Alison Nathan, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York, cited part of this passage from the Second Circuit’s Deflategate decision: “We are therefore not authorized to review the arbitrator’s decision on the merits despite allegations that the decision rests on factual errors or misinterprets the parties’ agreement, but inquire only as to whether the arbitrator acted within the scope of his authority as defined by the collective bargaining agreement.”

In summary, the NHL’s CBA appoints an independent arbitrator, while the NFL’s governing document grants Goodell that duty.

Furthermore, Oldham found an “internal contradiction” in hockey’s CBA, as he was charged to uphold the commissioner’s decision if it were “supported by substantial evidence” yet the CBA also allowed him to be “persuaded by new evidence that the result reached by the Commissioner was incorrect.” On neither count could the arbitrator find support for Bettman’s decision, concluding that Wideman was indeed dazed at the time of the hit—he didn’t close the bench gate and held his head down for several seconds after sitting—and that calling the contact a “cross-check” would be an inaccurate exaggeration.

“Whether or not this Court might reach the same decision as the Arbitrator were it presented with the same record is not relevant,” Nathan wrote in affirmation of Oldham. “Because it is at least arguable that the arbitrator applied the standard of review bargained for in the CBA, the award must be confirmed.”

Interestingly, the Second Circuit’s determination of a court’s limited scope in reviewing the facts presented before an arbitrator had an even earlier sports precedent: former Dodgers player Steve Garvey’s lawsuit seeking damages for Major League Baseball’s collusion period. That case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled against him.

At the end of the day, lesson is clear: Be careful what you bargain for.