In its effort to overturn the four-game suspension that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell imposed on Tom Brady, the NFL Players Association has spent more than $3.5 million on legal fees, according to detailed billing records filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. The expenses continue to build as the union ponders a possible attempt to interest the U.S. Supreme Court in the dispute.
Like all labor organizations in the U.S., the NFLPA must file detailed financial reports with the federal government. The 466-page report was submitted two months ago and covers the year that began on March 1, 2015, and ended on Feb. 29. The listing of expenses includes the monthly payments to Winston & Strawn, the law firm that, led by attorney Jeffrey Kessler, performed all of the work on Deflategate until the union added the highly regarded appellate advocate Ted Olson to its legal team earlier this year. The work of Olson and his firm, Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which likely ran into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, came too late to be included in the report.
Although there has been considerable speculation about the legal fees that the league and the union have invested in a dispute over the inflation of footballs, these billings are the first report of the actual fees that the union paid. There is no legal requirement that the NFL make public reports of its legal fees.
For the preparation and presentation of evidence in the one-day arbitration hearing before Goodell, the union paid its lawyers $1,328,273, according to the listings in the report for April, May and July of 2015.
In its successful challenge to Goodell's ruling before U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman, the union spent another $1,563,380 for two days of hearings.
The preparation and filing of briefs in response to the league's appeal of Berman's ruling resulted in $687,566 for the union.
The total expense of $3,570,219 does not include the work that Olson did after the appellate court's 2-1 decision that reversed Judge Berman and reinstated Brady's four-game suspension. After the deadline for the filing of the union's annual report had expired, Olson prepared an extensive brief asking for rehearing and orchestrated the filing of supporting briefs from the AFL-CIO, famed arbitrator Kenneth Feinberg, and various professors in support of rehearing.
It is likely that Olson's bills to the union for the effort on rehearing are at least the equal of Kessler's bills for the appeal, which ran around $700,000. Olson's bills will not be made public until the union files its next annual report in May of 2017.
Based on the actual bill in the annual report and the estimate of Olson's charges, the cost to each of the union's 2,000 members for pursuit of the lifting of Brady's suspension is $2,000.
A union spokesman emphasized, however, in an interview with ESPN.com that the players' dues ($15,000 per year) are not used for legal fees. The fees are instead funded out of the union's enormous income from royalties paid to it for NFL paraphernalia under the collective bargaining agreement. Although it is not specifically stated in the public reports, an analysis of other revenue figures in the reports shows that the union's royalties in 2015 were more than $138 million. Dues paid by the players for the same year were $32,168,380. The union's budget for legal fees is approved by its board of player representatives at the group's annual budget adoption meeting, according to the spokesman. "It is one of our most in-depth sessions," he said.
In addition to the annual review, the union's executive committee meets monthly to approve all spending on legal fees.
Although the union's investment in the Brady dispute may seem large, it could be small in comparison to the NFL's expenditures. The league is not required to make public reports of the fees that it pays, but during the course of a Brady appeal hearing, attorney Ted Wells estimated the price of his investigation into Deflategate to be $2.5 million to $3 million. That is, of course, only a fraction of what the NFL has spent in its pursuit of Brady.