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Fielkow's Law: A Guide Through The Legal World of Sports With A Fantasy Spin

Justin Fielkow

Justin Fielkow is an attorney at the Franklin Law Group in Northfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. A proud Wisconsin Badger, he also attended Tulane University Law School, where he obtained a Certificate in Sports Law. Justin has been writing for Rotowire since 2008, covering the New Orleans Saints, and as a columnist analyzing legal issues and their impact on fantasy sports.

“Everyone should be on notice. Suspension is on the table because apparently fines have not been effective.”

With that simple statement uttered by Ray Anderson, the NFL’s Executive Vice President of Football Operations, on ESPN’s Mike & Mike in the Morning radio show on November 20th, NFL players, and their respective fantasy owners, were put on high alert that more suspensions could be forthcoming in the wake of the one-game suspension handed down to the Ravens' Ed Reed for his hit to the head of the Steelers’ Emmanuel Sanders during the teams’ November 18 showdown.

However, is it really that simple? Should fantasy owners with players who have previously run afoul of Commissioner Roger Goodell be scrambling to secure contingency plans?

Despite the seeming finality of Anderson’s statement, the truth is a tad more nuanced. As a practicing attorney, I frequently analyze situations in which a contract governs the state of affairs for a group of people. Many fans think of the NFL as a Sunday escape governed only by the gladiators on the field. In reality, the NFL is a corporate behemoth whose employee/employer relations are governed by the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). Thus, for any insight into the fate of players such as Reed, we need to start by digging into the facts of the case, and how those facts are addressed in the CBA.

Whether or not the hit was intentional, Reed’s helmet clearly made contact with Sanders’ helmet during the play. As a result, Reed was suspended for one game the following Monday by NFL Vice President of Football Operations Merton Hanks for his third violation in three seasons of the rule prohibiting helmet-to-helmet hits against defenseless players. Ray Anderson would appear that Tuesday on Mike & Mike’s radio show to defend the suspension, stating that players should be on notice that more suspensions would be forthcoming for hits to the neck and head area, regardless of intent, and particularly for those “repeat offenders” such as Reed.

Yet, that Wednesday, it was learned that Reed had successfully appealed his one-game suspension and was instead docked $50,000.

This raises an interesting question: How was it that Reed was able to not only avoid his suspension, but also expedite the ruling, such that his appeal was heard and a decision rendered within two days of the suspension being levied? This stands in sharp contrast to the plight of the Saints’ players involved in the now-infamous “Bounty-Gate” scandal, who, still have yet to see a concrete resolution to their own suspensions despite their sanctions having been handed out this offseason.

The answer is actually simpler than you might think. Under the terms of the most recent CBA, the discipline and appeals process for “on-field” issues now differs from that of “off-field” issues. No longer under the direct purview of the commissioner are “fines or suspensions imposed upon players for unnecessary roughness or unsportsmanlike conduct on the playing field." As you may recall, this was a point of emphasis for the NFLPA during the negotiations that produced the league's current CBA. The NFLPA resented that Goodell had served as judge, jury, and executioner in both repeatedly fining players, such as James Harrison, and then subsequently denying their appeals. Yet, while Goodell no longer issues rulings on cases involving on-field conduct, he still serves as the primary decision-maker for off-field matters, including action taken against a player for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence in, the game.” As we have seen in court rulings over the past few months, this definition apparently includes the alleged actions taken by the Saints’ players in “Bounty-Gate” (a topic which will be outlined in more detail in a subsequent column).

As for appeals, after a league official (other than Goodell) makes a decision to either fine or suspend a player for on-field malfeasance, an appeal of that fine or suspension is no longer heard by a paid official in the league office. Rather, an independent arbitrator, jointly appointed by the league and the NFLPA, will hear evidence and issue a ruling upholding the imposed penalty, imposing a different one, or striking it altogether. The use of an independent arbitrator increases the chance that a suspension, like Reed’s, will be overturned because the arbitrator will not be privy to imposing strict liability for any dangerous hits, but will likely look at both intent and that player’s particular history. Unfortunately, such a remedy is is not available to those, like the implicated Saints, who are in the league’s crosshairs for off-field matters. Goodell still has the right to judge appeals for off-field conduct, though as in the case with the Saints players, he may choose not to do so.

Armed with fresh knowledge regarding the intricacies of player discipline under the new CBA, we can now examine fantasy owners’ top priority, namely, which players are most likely to be suspended going forward. The first group of players below includes those who have previously been cited, fined, or suspended for off-field conduct, such that another misstep would likely result in a meeting with Sheriff Goodell and an ensuing punishment (without the guardian angel of an independent arbitrator to whom to appeal). Generally, these likely culprits include some of the “bad boys” of the NFL, whose previous run-ins with the law have been well-documented:

Ben Roethlisberger
Michael Vick
Kenny Britt
Adam Jones
Plaxico Burress
Marshawn Lynch
Dez Bryant

The second group of players includes ones who have previously been cited, fined, or suspended for dangerous hits or unsportsmanlike conduct. If these players are found to have been engaging in prohibited on-field conduct, they will at least have the chance of seeing their suspensions reduced or overturned after the arbitrator’s review:

James Harrison
Ryan Clark
Ndamukong Suh
Brandon Meriweather
Cortland Finnegan
Dunta Robinson
Ed Reed
Ray Edwards
T.J. Ward
Kenny Phillips
LaRon Landry

This is not an exhaustive list, but the players listed above certainly should be on notice that, given their history, another dangerous hit could be punctuated not only with a hefty fine, but with also a suspension. Further, given the NFL’s recent focus on the health and safety of its players in the wake of damning concussion studies, this crackdown on dangerous hits to the neck and head area is bound to continue. As a result, fantasy owners with any of the players listed above should be aware that having a solid backup on their roster might be a wise decision with the threat of suspension looming in the background.

Justin Fielkow is an attorney at the Franklin Law Group in Northfield, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Justin attended Tulane University Law School and obtained a Certificate in Sports Law. He has been writing for Rotowire since 2008, first while at the University of Wisconsin, then and still as the beat writer for the New Orleans Saints, and now as a featured columnist providing insight twice a month into the legal side of sport with a fantasy spin.