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Missouri Supreme Court invalidates Commissioner as arbitrator

When it comes to employment disputes involving individuals teams, the NFL traditionally stacks the deck in its favor, forcing disgruntled employees to agree to arbitration -- with the Commissioner of the league presiding. Last week, the Missouri Supreme Court delivered what could become a fatal blow to the league’s obsession with allowing a non-lawyer to make legal decisions that could be influenced by business interests unrelated to what the law requires.

In a lawsuit filed more than four years ago by former Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt, the Missouri Supreme Court invalidated the requirement of submitting all claims to arbitration resolved by the Commissioner. The Missouri Supreme Court based its conclusion in part on a fairly simply analysis of three provisions of the league’s Constitution and Bylaws.

First, the Court pointed out that Section 8.3 gives the Commissioner “full, complete, and final jurisdiction and authority to arbitrate . . . [a]ny dispute between any player, coach, and/or other employee of any member of the League and any member club or clubs.” Next, the Court pointed out that Section 8.1 requires the NFL to “select and employ a person of unquestioned integrity to serve as Commissioner of the League and shall determine the period and fix the compensation of his employment.” Then, the Court pointed out that Section 8.2 states that the “Commissioner shall have no financial interest, direct or indirect, in any professional sport.”

The provisions are clearly inconsistent; it’s impossible for the Commissioner to have “no financial interest” in “any professional sport” when he is paid by the league -- and when the bulk of his compensation often comes from bonuses tied to the financial success of the league. More importantly, the Missouri Supreme Court concluded that the conflicting provisions and obvious bias of the Commissioner when “required to arbitrate claims against his employers” makes the requirement that employees submit claims to arbitration resolved by the Commissioner unenforceable.

While narrow in application to the State of Missouri (which serves as the home of two NFL teams, the Rams and Chiefs), the ruling provides a blueprint for employees who hope to avoid Commissioner-resolved arbitration in the other 21 states in which the NFL does business. It also gives the NFL Players Association and the NFL Referees Association a potential hammer for challenging in court the ability of the Commissioner to continue to serve as the arbitrator over claims brought by players and game officials, respectively.

While those provisions likely will have greater teeth because they appear in Collective Bargaining Agreements, the three provisions quoted by the Missouri Supreme Court from the NFL’s Constitution and Bylaws lay the foundation for a case-by-case attack on arbitration submitted to the Commissioner based on the inherent bias of the Commissioner.

It’s an obvious problem that has been hiding in plain sight for decades. At some point, the unions, the courts, and/or the NFL itself need to acknowledge that the Commissioner necessarily is incapable of being objective when resolving disputes involving the very teams that hire and pay him, and to come up with a more fair and unbiased procedure for resolving disputes.