Despite failed efforts by the NFL Players Association to challenge discipline imposed by the NFL on Tom Brady and Ezekiel Elliott in court, the current effort to impose discipline on Deshaun Watson could ultimately be challenged, too.
Brady initially won, before a three-judge appeals panel (by a 2-1 vote) found that Commissioner Roger Goodell properly acted within his collectively-bargained rights. Elliott initially won, too.
At the end of the day, eight total judges considered the Brady and Elliott cases. They split, 4-4, on whether Goodell or the players should prevail.
In this situation, if the NFLPA and/or Watson object to the final outcome, another effort could be made to challenge the case in court. The question becomes whether Watson’s side would be able to get the case filed in a favorable forum before the league could file a lawsuit of its own in a New York federal court, seeking a declaration that the ruling is legally defensible.
If the case lands in a New York federal court, the appeals decision from the Brady case becomes directly relevant to Watson. The precedent potentially binds any decision. (Then again, and as we all learned five days ago, precedent is only as binding as the judges decide it should be.)
One way for judges to avoid supposedly binding precedent is to “distinguish” the facts of the current situation from the facts of the prior one. The facts of the Watson case potentially becomes distinguishable based merely on the fact that the procedure to imposing discipline and appealing the decision have changed.
One key difference comes from the fact that the findings made by Judge Sue L. Robinson “will be binding” on the parties during the appeal process. If Judge Robinson crafts her written findings and conclusions in a certain way, it could be very difficult for Goodell to simply thank her for her service and implement the punishment that the league office (controlled by Goodell) wanted in the first place.
Thus, while Tuesday night’s leak of a supposed willingness by the league to not appeal the decision if it lands within the range of a six- or eight-game suspension could be aimed at nudging Judge Robinson from making an unappealable decision that no discipline should be imposed, it’s also possible the league realizes that overturning her decision to impose six or eight games without a good reason for doing so amounts to jumping with both feet into a bear trap of litigation.