U.S. District Judge Amos Mazzant this week denied an emergency motion for a temporary restraining order brought by Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle La’el Collins. The NFL suspended Collins for five games for violating the NFL-NFLPA drug policy, a suspension that will cost the offensive tackle about $2 million in salary. Collins has already served four games. While Judge Mazzant concluded that Collins—who was accused of attempting to bribe a test collector—failed to show sufficient grounds to merit a restraining order, the judge also slammed the league and arbitrator’s legal reasoning.
This was not the first drug suspension for Collins, who starred at LSU before signing with the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent in 2015. Last year, he was suspended for the first four games of the 2020 regular season. That suspension reflected, in part, Collins “failing to fully cooperate with testing” on multiple occasions and failing to provide supporting documentation as to his whereabouts.
In July 2020, Collins appealed the 2020 suspension to a neutral arbitrator. Before the matter was resolved, the NFL allowed Collins to pay a fine in lieu of serving the suspension. A month later, Collins received positive tests for marijuana and during the season failed to appear for testing on seven occasions. Collins did appear for a drug test in November 2020. However, the collector claimed that after Collins asked to speak “man to man,” he initially offered a $5,000 bribe, then a $10,000 bribe, if the collector could ensure Collins didn’t test positive. Collins then missed four drug tests in December. The league suspended him for five games in January 2021.
Collins appealed, with arbitrator James Carter hearing the appeal in August. Carter upheld the suspension. He was unpersuaded by Collins’ attempts to explain why he failed to appear for so many tests. Collins, 28, also neglected to meet a duty to communicate his excuses to the test collector. Carter also emphasized the alleged bribery attempt. Such misconduct, he reasoned, warranted “the next logical progression from prior discipline”—with “prior discipline” reflecting the four-game suspension that Collins did not serve.
In suing the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, Collins argued the NFL violated the CBA in suspending him for five games since his alleged misconduct did not reflect a listed ground for an enhanced punishment. Collins also contended that the NFL lied when saying he had previously received a four-game suspension (as explained above, Collins received, but didn’t serve, the four-game suspension).
In arguing against Collins’ demand for an injunction, the NFL repeatedly cited Tom Brady’s unsuccessful case against the NFL in Deflategate—where Brady, in the view of many neutral scientists, had debunked the NFL’s ball deflation theories. The league did so to stress the extreme difficulty NFL players face in challenging arbitration awards (rulings). Those awards are generated by a process the league and Collins’ union negotiated.
In Brady, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit emphasized that a “federal court’s review of labor arbitration awards is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential—indeed, among the most deferential in the law.” In fact, federal courts must honor arbitration awards even if they contain factual errors.
A key legal hurdle for Collins was that his claims focused on the accuracy of various assertions that weren’t, in Judge Mazzant’s reasoning, sufficient to justify an injunction. The judge emphasized that “an arbitrator’s finding is given such extreme deference” because the NFL and NFLPA bargained to empower the arbitrator. He added, “the parties are bound by the arbitrator’s decision even if the party believes the decision was unwise or wrong on the merits.”
Faced with this arduous standard of review, Collins lost.
Yet Judge Mazzant, who in 2017 ruled in favor of Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott’s challenge of a six-game suspension only to see the Second Circuit later side with the league, criticized the NFL and arbitrator for their reading of the drug policy.
The policy provides that a player who fails to cooperate will be treated as having a positive test result. Collins, by all accounts, failed to cooperate on multiple occasions.
Yet the policy also states that “a deliberate effort to substitute or adulterate a specimen; to alter a test result; or to engage in prohibited doping methods will be treated as a positive test and may subject a player to additional discipline.” Judge Mazzant rejected the notion that attempted bribery falls within any of the grounds for additional discipline. Collins, the judge observed, “did not make a deliberate effort to substitute or adulterate a specimen. He did not alter a test result. He did not engage in any prohibited doping methods.”
Despite finding that Collins’ receiving a five-game suspension “does not follow logically from the [policy’s] plain language,” Judge Mazzant acknowledged he owes a high degree of deference to a dispute resolution system that the league and union negotiated. If Collins and other players wish to see the system changed, it will require the league and union to negotiate a new policy.
Collins will sit out Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots and but will be eligible to return in the following Sunday’s game against the Minnesota Vikings.