Cedric Benson Prepares for Battle

…and then the NFL has to go and suspend Cincinnati Bengals running-back Cedric Benson. Now, Benson is no saint (and for that matter he is not a member of the New Orleans Saints), having been arrested four times in the past 3 years-twice for boating under the influence and twice for assault-but, due to the process that was used to suspend him, it does not mean that his suspension is justifiable.

To set the scence, the NFL went through a laborious lockout this summer that ended on July 25th. During this lockout, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) decertified as a union and did not recertify until July 30. Benson’s most recent arrest for assault came in late July. At the time of this arrest, the NFL was still in lockout mode and Benson was an unrestricted free agent. Despite the fact that the NFL was in the middle of a lockout at the time of the arrest and that Benson did not have a contract with any team, Benson was suspended by Commissioner Roger Goodell for 3 games. This suspension was recently reduced to one game.

What makes all of this so very interesting from a legal perspective is that the NFLPA, the very group that is supposed to be representing players such as Benson, is the one ultimately responsible for his suspension. Well, other than Benson himself. He probably should not have punched his ex-roommate.

33 players were arrested during the lockout. As the lockout was coming to an end, the NFLPA began discussing the issue of possible discipline of these players with Commissioner Goodell. The still decertified NFLPA negotiated a deal with Commissioner Goodell that allows 8 of those 33 players that the NFLPA did not represent at the time it made the agreement to be subject to discipline from Commissioner Goodell. These players include: Aqib Talib, Kenny Britt, Albert Haynesworth, Adam Jones, Brandon Underwood, Johnny Jolly, and Clark Haggans. Of these players, only Benson has been suspended. The Bengals’ NFLPA player representative, Andrew Whitworth, believed that at the time the new Collective Bargaining Agreement was ratified Commissioner Goodell would not have the power to suspend players for conduct during the lockout. Benson also believed that Commissioner Goodell would not be able to suspend him for his transgressions during the lockout.

After the suspension was issued, Benson filed an unfair labor practice charge against the NFLPA with the National Labor Relations Board. Benson bases his claim on the grounds that he was unemployed at the time of the incident and, more importantly, that the NFLPA had no right to negotiate on his behalf because it was de-certified at the time it made this agreement with Commissioner Goodell.

As mentioned above, Benson’s suspension has already been reduced from 3 games to 1 game by the NFL. However, this reduction was not due to the fact that the union was decertified at the time it entered into the agreement with Commissioner Goodell. Mr. Harold Henderson, the hearing officer for Benson’s appeal, found that a 3 game suspension was unwarranted due to the nature of the infraction, not because of the NFLPA’s stealth agreement.

Going back to Benson’s NLRB claim, we probably still have a few weeks until we know the result. In the interim, a question remains as to the possibility of redressing Benson if the NFLPA’s actions are found to be illegal. After all, one game in the NFL can be the difference between being a starter and being a bench-warmer.

The General Counsel for the Regional NLRB may have the power to rectify this situation. The General Counsel can issue a 10(j) injunction for the charging party, here Cedric Benson. The issue then will be whether the NLRB can issue that injunction in order to prevent the NFL from suspending Benson. This is, from my viewpoint, the most desirable result. Benson’s claim is against the NFLPA, that the NFLPA negotiated on Benson’s behalf when it had no power to do so. Thus, an injunction against the NFLPA’s agreement with the NFL to suspend those 8 players could force the NFL to delay Benson’s suspension until a final decision is made on the NLRB claim. If the agreement concerning those 8 players and the NFLPA is deemed void, then the NFL at that point can determine if it still has the power to suspend those players without express approval from the NFLPA. Ultimately, there has yet to be any talk about a preliminary injunction.

Paul Brown Stadium, home of the Cincinnati Bengals--Contrary to popular belief, it does not double as a half-way house.

For the Bengals, Benson is just one of two players that will be keeping an eye on this decision.  Corner-back Adam (formerly known as Pac-Man) Jones is set to make his 2011 debut for the Bengals in week 8 against Seattle. Seeing as how he still faces a possible suspension from Commissioner Goodell, the Bengals have a very strong interest in this NLRB claim being resolved in Benson’s favor.

— Charles Michels

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2 Responses to I Thought We Were Done Talking About the NFL Lockout…

  1. Shane Valenzi says:

    Though the entire issue is moot now, with the NLRB having denied Benson’s claim and Benson having already served his suspension, the NFL’s position isn’t exactly indefensible. The NFL, as an employer (putting aside for the moment the American Needle-esque question of whether the NFL is an employer or whether all 32 teams are individual employers in this context), has full dominion over who it chooses to allow to work for them – including players – provided they don’t act in a discriminatory way. The restrictions the league imposes as far as who can be suspended and for what infractions, to the extent that there are any, are bargained for by the labor union, so his quarrel should be with the union, not the league.

    With that distinction made, the NFLPA is responsible for representing the best interests of the players as a whole, not any one specific player. Subjecting Benson to a possible suspension due to his status as a repeat offender allowed the union to protect the remainder of its players from suspensions; though far from ideal (especially from Benson’s perspective), the deal functioned as a bargaining chip (albeit a relatively small one) in striking an agreement with the owners and allowing the lockout to end. While Benson’s individual interests might not be represented here, his personal interests do not truly line up with the interests of the players as a whole, who were evidently not inclined to stand in solidarity as a union in defense of a single ill-behaved individual, with no moral ground to stand on. Was Benson discriminated against by the league and the NFLPA? Perhaps. But “convicted criminal” is not a protected class of individuals.

  2. Paul Russell says:

    As much as it pains me, I agree with Cedric on this one. It’s not that Cedric will not receive punishment at all, just that he won’t receive additional punishment from the NFL. I believe he should have a convincing argument that the NFLPA was not fairly representing his interests in their agreement with the NFL to allow the league to punish him.