U.S. District Judge David S. Doty issued a ruling Thursday in the complicated legal case between Minnesota Vikings tailback Adrian Peterson, the NFL and the NFL Players Association. Let's digest the situation, and its larger implications, by addressing a series of questions.
What does the ruling mean?
Peterson remains suspended, but he is in position for an early reinstatement from a suspension originally set to hold through at least April 15.
Doty ruled that arbitrator Harold Henderson violated the NFL's collective bargaining agreement (CBA) in upholding Peterson's suspension after an appeal hearing in December. In Doty's words, Henderson "simply disregarded the law of the shop."
Among other things, Doty ruled that Henderson did not explain in his ruling why Peterson was punished under the terms of an enhanced personal conduct policy put into place after he was indicted for crimes related to injuring his son. According to Doty, the NFL and Henderson did not adequately justify why Peterson could be retroactively punished.
An NFL spokesman said the league is reviewing the decision. Ultimately, it must decide whether to appeal Doty's ruling, grant another internal hearing to Peterson or reinstate him and move on.
What's the likeliest choice?
The NFL's litigious ways leave all possibilities open, and ESPN NFL business analyst Andrew Brandt projects an appeal of Doty's decision. [UPDATE: The NFL has said it disagrees with the decision and will plan to appeal.] The smartest strategy, however, might be to reinstate Peterson and be done with this public fight and spectacle. Even in admitting legal defeat, the NFL would have succeeded in keeping Peterson away from its fields and facilities for more than six months. For now, it has also pocketed $4.15 million worth of Peterson's game checks from last season. Is it worth fighting over six more weeks of an offseason suspension?
How wounded is the NFL by this ruling?
Not as severely as you might think. It now seems clear that the league overstepped its labor agreement in its haste to remove both Peterson and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice from the public eye. If its strategy was to act first and deal with repercussions later, it has largely worked. Neither Rice nor Peterson got back on the field in 2014. Their legal victories can't change that. Now the NFL can move forward and (legally) use its enhanced personal conduct policy for all future incidents.
You sure about that?
Look, legal defeats are embarrassing. And at some point, the NFL will be damaged by a labor relationship that winds up in litigation far too frequently. Something has gone wrong when the courts are determining the eligibility of players. But hopefully, the NFL has viewed its legal approach as immediate crisis management rather than a larger strategy to sidestep its CBA when convenient.
How will this ruling affect Peterson's status with the Vikings?
For now, not at all. The player and team are still prohibited from direct contact unless and until the NFL formally reinstates him. So for now, there is no change. The Vikings' public position is that they want Peterson back, although they won't comment on a contract that would pay him $12.75 million and count $15.4 million against the cap. When he last spoke publicly, Peterson told ESPN.com that he is "uneasy" about a return to Minnesota.
When will we know where Peterson will play in 2015?
The ball really can't start moving until Peterson is reinstated. Whenever he is, the Vikings will put their plan into motion. If they want to restructure or renegotiate his contract, discussions could begin immediately. If they plan to cut him, they could do that at any time, as well. They could trade him as early as March 10, which is also the earliest he could sign with another team as a free agent if the Vikings have released him.
What do you think will happen?
The Vikings have a history of trading star players when they are disgruntled. In the past 10 years, they have shipped away a Hall of Fame receiver (Randy Moss, 2005), a franchise quarterback (Daunte Culpepper, 2006) and arguably their best player (Percy Harvin, 2012). To add Peterson's name to that list would be an extraordinary litany.
There are people in the Vikings' organization who desperately want him back, but there are others who are conflicted. Add their uncertainty to Peterson's public uneasiness, and you have a relatively common template for parting ways. If the Vikings want to keep him, their one bit of leverage is money. They almost certainly can (and would) pay him more than any other team to play in 2015.