NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has been criticized in court over the years, but a federal appeals court agrees with Goodell on one topic: He’s right to let the AFC and NFC champs face off in the Super Bowl.
On February 4, 2021—three days before the Kansas City Chiefs would play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV—Illinois resident Patricia Breckenridge sued Goodell in a Chicago federal district court. She sought an injunction to “stop” the Super Bowl “until [the] Cleveland Browns are placed” in the game.
The Browns finished 11-5 in the 2020 season, ending an 18-year playoff drought. The team was led by its young and dynamic quarterback, Baker Mayfield, who had passed for 3,563 yards and 26 touchdowns.
A lot can change in one season. Mayfield has since lost his starting job to newly acquired Deshaun Watson. The Browns might even cut the former Heisman Trophy winner, who this week said he felt “disrespected” by the team that drafted him first overall in the 2018 draft.
But during the 2020 season, the Browns were flying high. They defeated a top rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, in a wild card game before losing to the Chiefs in a divisional playoff. The Chiefs went on to topple the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship.
Breckenridge’s complaint warned that if Goodell didn’t insert the defeated Browns into the Super Bowl, the commissioner would “be sued for the amount of $10 million.” She explained this hefty figure was intended “to compensate Cleveland Browns for their rightful place in the Super Bowl.” She also referred to the loss of a ring and “pain and suffering.”
Breckenridge added that she had “suffered harm by her relative not being allowed to play.” Her complaint didn’t identify the relative who allegedly played for the Browns, but she stressed she’d show that the “actions of [Goodell] are malicious, intentional [and] willful,” and constitute “reckless disregard of the rights of plaintiff and relatives.”
Representing herself in the litigation, Breckenridge added a separate theory of liability: “the Commissioner continues to breach his NFL contract for helmet-to-helmet collision that could cause serious injury or death.”
Neither theory found a receptive audience with four federal judges.
In March 2021, Judge Matthew Kennelly dismissed the case with prejudice. He found that Breckenridge’s demand for the Browns to be placed in the Super Bowl “has no basis and is frivolous.” The judge added that while Breckenridge “makes reference to a relative’s football-related injuries,” she “alleges no injuries to herself” and “lacks standing to sue for harm to someone else.”
Breckenridge appealed. Her appellate brief identified the Browns player who she says is her relative: offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., the 10th overall pick in the 2020 draft.
The purported relationship is not exactly a close one.
“Ms. Breckenridge,” the appellate brief stated, “is the great-grand cousin of professional football player Jedrick Wills, and her father, James T. Breckenridge, Sr. is Jedrick Wills, Jr. great-grand uncle who was an MP in WW II, and her brother James T. Breckenridge, Jr. is a Purple Heart recipient in the Vietnam War . . . ”
The brief further opined that Goodell’s father, U.S. Sen. Charles Goodell, “was right to oppose the Vietnam War[,] IMO.” It added that Breckenridge had endured “an ordeal of anguish and emotional stress injury.”
On April 8, a three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit affirmed the lawsuit’s dismissal. The panel included three prominent judges: Chief Judge Diane Sykes and Judges Frank Easterbrook and Michael Brennan. Sykes was on then-President Donald Trump’s shortlist for the U.S. Supreme Court, while Easterbrook was on then-President George W. Bush’s list.
The panel found that Breckenridge “does not address [Judge Kennelly’s] reasoning or make a cogent legal argument that could provide a basis for disturbing the judgment.” It concurred with Judge Kennelly that “her claim about the Browns’ defeat is legally frivolous” and that she “lacks standing to bring a claim on behalf of football players who have suffered injuries.”
Goodell was represented by attorneys Todd Ohlms and Genesis Sanchez Tavarez of Proskauer Rose.