Exposed again, NFL leaders face questions

When U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman vacated the four-game suspension of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Thursday morning, he basically kicked sand in the face of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Since taking office in 2006, Goodell has painted himself as the no-nonsense tough guy who rules with an iron fist. He was empowered by the collective bargaining agreement to be judge, jury and executioner, he said.

However, the courts have exposed Goodell. In case after case, we learn repeatedly that NFL justice simply isn't in line with the standards of American workplace justice. Two federal judges, one former federal judge, one former NFL commissioner and a former employee and current consultant all have recently overturned Goodell discipline. He didn't win StarCaps. He didn't win Ray Rice. He didn't win Adrian Peterson. He didn't win Greg Hardy. And the suspensions he imposed in the Saints bounty case -- a case in which Goodell appointed former commissioner Paul Tagliabue as arbiter -- were vacated by Tagliabue, who essentially said Goodell had become too intoxicated by the power of his office, losing focus on the power of nuance and negotiation.

The Brady decision is the most damning if only because it's the most recent. The league has appealed the ruling, but there's little doubt that the initial decision will lead to greater scrutiny of Goodell by the owners who employ him. Even before Berman's decision, a couple of owners who publicly stood behind Goodell told me they were unhappy with the amount of money spent on the investigation -- reportedly a minimum of $3 million -- and with the way an iconic player was being dragged through the mud over something as minor as air pressure in a football in a game where such a thing clearly didn't matter.

If nothing else, Berman's ruling could move the league one step closer to neutral arbitration, with the league losing the right to rule on appeals. It's something the union has been pushing for since the current collective bargaining agreement was adopted in 2011. While the NFL has lost in court before, this was a case where Goodell's power as an arbitrator was directly questioned.

What does this mean for NFL leadership? There have been whispers for weeks that changes are coming in the league office. Last month, Tod Leiweke was hired as the NFL's first COO since Goodell took office, and Leiweke is said to have the authority to recommend changes where necessary. Earlier this week Paul Hicks, an executive VP of communications and public affairs, stepped down to accept a position outside the NFL. And what's to come of general counsel Jeff Pash if the NFL loses its appeal of the Brady case? One owner privately told me that Patriots owner Robert Kraft clearly had Pash in his cross hairs when he said "too many lawyers in the room" was a reason Deflategate became as big as it did.

"This decision should prove, once and for all, that our Collective Bargaining Agreement does not grant this Commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement. "While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of Commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed. ... This court's decision to overturn the NFL Commissioner again should signal to every NFL owner that collective bargaining is better than legal losses. Collective bargaining is a much better process that will lead to far better results."