Players Sue NFL Over Bounty Punishments

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Grab your popcorn. Two days after upholding his own disciplinary rulings against four Saints players for their roles in the bounty scandal, the NFLPA has filed a lawsuit challenging both the decision, and Goodell's authority to make it. The union is suing on behalf of Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith, and Scott Fujita, who have been suspended eight, four and three games, respectively. (Jonathan Vilma, who was suspended an entire season, filed his own pair of lawsuits, with the most recent naming disgruntled former coach Mike Cerullo as the league's whistleblower.)


The suit, filed in Louisiana rather than the player-friendly Minnesota district that has seen so much NFL litigation, argues that Goodell's hearings were patently unfair, and go beyond the power granted to him by the latest collective bargaining agreement.

''A seminal question for this court is whether the NFL collective bargaining agreement ... granted the commissioner, when serving as an arbitrator, the authority to disregard the essence of the parties' agreement, to conduct proceedings that are fundamentally unfair, and to act with evident bias and without jurisdiction,'' the lawsuit states. ''The answer, under governing case law, is clearly 'no.'''


At issue is Goodell's tripartite role as judge, NFL PR man, and appeals judge. The suit claims the commissioner "publicly proclaimed the players' guilt" after the announcement of the bounties' existence but before he handed down their sentences. After that ruling, but before the appeals hearing, Goodell "repeatedly lauded the discipline he had imposed at the players' expense."

These are kind of hard to argue. No other arbitration in the world would be held as legitimate, if the arbitrator publicly said, before hearing and ruling on the case, that the defendants' actions "[call] for a very significant and clear message." Nor, in any other forum, is it normal for an appellant judge to call a special field trip for the media to show them all the evidence against the defendants.

The NFL's response, in an emailed statement, is that these are the terms the NFLPA agreed to in the CBA.

"As in the case of Mr. Vilma's lawsuit, this is an improper attempt to litigate an issue that is committed to a collectively bargained process. There is no basis for asking a federal court to put its judgment in place of the procedures agreed upon with the NFLPA in collective bargaining. These procedures have been in place, and have served the game and players well, for many decades."


It's all about the CBA's language, which delegated to Goodell authority to punish "conduct detrimental to the league." This was a minor sticking point during the lockout, and the NFLPA fought it mostly because it allowed Goodell to discipline players for off-the-field conduct. The league decided the language also applies to bounties and player safety issues; the union disputes that interpretation. I guess we'll find out in court.