University of Miami Law Review


Josh Mandel


Deflategate was one of the most controversial scandals in NFL history, and while many became fascinated due to their love of football, Deflategate was ultimately rooted in law. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Tom Brady, the legendary quarterback for the New England Patriots, for four games for engaging in “conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football.” More specifically, Goodell suspended Brady because he was generally aware of Patriots staff deflating footballs prior to the 2015 AFC Championship game, and because he failed to cooperate with the investigation into the deflated footballs.

Commissioner Goodell controversially elected to act as the arbitrator in Brady’s challenge to the four-game suspension, which Goodell affirmed in his arbitration award. Thereafter, Brady successfully petitioned the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York to vacate Goodell’s arbitration award. Nonetheless, the 544-day Deflategate saga ended after the Second Circuit reinstated Goodell’s award in a 2–1 decision and denied Brady’s subsequent request for en banc review. Because two federal judges ruled in favor of Brady, while two others ruled in favor of Goodell and the NFL, this Note acts as the tiebreaker, wherein each issue on appeal is reevaluated and discussed under controlling arbitration and labor law.

Upon closer examination, Deflategate presents a number of important questions about the scope and fairness of the NFL Commissioner’s authority. Should the NFL Commissioner have the authority to elect himself as the arbitrator in a challenge to his prior disciplinary decision? Should the NFL Commissioner have the authority to suspend, or terminate the contract of, any player who engages in “conduct detrimental” to the NFL, despite the “conduct detrimental” standard holding no concrete definition and being subject to the unilateral interpretation of the NFL Commissioner? How far can and should such a standard be stretched? Is such a standard inherently fair simply because a court deems it so?

While this Note begins with the discussion outlined above—acting as the tiebreaker in the 2–2 split among federal judges—this Note then focuses more broadly on the contractual rights afforded to and enjoyed by the NFL Commissioner. In doing so, this Note explores the provisions in the 2011 NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement that many believe grants the NFL Commissioner too much authority, and discusses ways in which the NFL Players Association and the NFL can come to an agreement in limiting such authority as the negotiations for the 2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement soon approaches.