Fired MLB arbitrator Das central figure in Saints' player appealsMay 16 - The Sports Xchange
League and team officials have steadfastly suggested that there is little or perhaps even no correlation between the NFL's bounty suspensions of four current and former New Orleans players and the various sanctions imposed on Major League Baseball players for violations of that game's drug policy.
But there figures to be some uneasiness in the NFL offices over the next couple weeks, the expected period of study and deliberation by arbitrator Shyam Das of the appeals of the four "Bountygate" defenders, before he renders a decision on their appeals. Those appeals were to be heard on Wednesday afternoon.
Das, who has served as an NFL arbitrator since 2004, was canned last week by MLB, where he had also presided over appeals cases since 1999. While baseball officials have stopped short of fully explaining the rationale for the dismissal, it's believed the action was tied to Das' controversial decision to overturn the 50-game suspension of Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun, the National League's reigning most valuable player.
In addition to the Wednesday hearing, the players will take their case to arbitrator Stephen Burbank on May 30. The argument there is that, even if New Orleans players were paid a bounty, the violation is against the salary cap, and, under the tenets of the CBA, Burbank has jurisdiction.
For now, though, it's Das at center stage.
NFL officials, and correctly so, have maintained that the dots between Braun's alleged actions and the purported bounty that was active in New Orleans for three seasons under former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams simply don't connect.
Outside of the high-powered attorneys that have been retained by Jonathan Vilma, Anthony Hargrove, Will Smith and Scott Fujita, that seems relatively clear. But in appeals cases, where every word and collectively bargained statute is parsed, the prism can be a little more clouded.
And Das, a veteran arbitrator, has some history of murkiness.
Beyond the recent Braun case, it was Das who reduced MLB-initiated penalties against pitchers John Rocker in 2000 and Kenny Rogers in 2005. And it may have been Das' role in the Braun case that prompted last week's settlement of an original 100-game suspension of Denver catcher Eliezer Alfonzo.
A Harvard graduate and a product of the Yale Law School, Das is widely respected by NFL officials, one league executive insisted earlier this week. But that same official noted that Das was held in high regard by MLB for much of his tenure, then added that the arbitrator is a "stickler" for details.
And, as is typically the case in any appeals, certainly the bounty matter, the devil is in the details and in how they are interpreted. Notable is that none of the four players suspended by the NFL, for terms ranging from three games (Fujita) to the entire 2012 season (Vilma), is basing his appeal on innocence. They are appealing, instead, on jurisdictional grounds, contending that, under the CBA, commissioner Roger Goodell doesn't have purview in their cases.
Goodell was careful to issue the sanctions as a matter of "conduct detrimental to the league and the game," not strictly for on-field actions or salary cap violations. In the last two instances, his role in appeals would have been altered. Essentially, the four players involved, by way of their hired mouthpieces, will contend in the first of what figures to be three actions, that the appeals should not be adjudicated by Goodell.
And that's where the dots between Das and details might connect. The case against Braun was overturned because of the failure of a sample collector to rigidly follow the protocol outlined in baseball's drug program. Not because Das ruled that the Brewers' star clearly had not used performance enhancing substances, but because the collector had kept the sample in his home over a weekend, having obtained it on a Saturday, and not dispatched it via overnight delivery until Monday. The Alfonzo case was settled because of a similar chain-of-custody issue. Again, no insistence that Alfonzo didn't use drugs, but a technicality instead.
And that's why top NFL executives may be holding their collective breaths until Das offers a decision that upholds Goodell's jurisdiction over the suspensions.
"We think that we're on pretty firm ground, but you never know how an arbitrator is going to rule," one league official said. Sports attorneys widely agree with the NFL assessment, but also caution that arbitrations can be unpredictable.
Outside of trotting out former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White two weeks ago -- the independent counsel retained by the league to review the bounty findings -- the NFL has closely guarded the evidence it has collected in the New Orleans matter. Part of the reason for doing so is to safeguard the confidentiality of informants. It remains doubtful that such evidence will be entered in the appeals, at least not initially, since it has little bearing on the four players' actions right now. And if Das and others decide the affected defenders have nowhere to turn but Goodell, who would then serve as judge and jury, the evidence may never be fully divulged.
On the other hand, should Das unexpectedly find for the four players, expect Goodell and the NFL to react with guns blazing. And, like baseball, to eventually give the veteran arbitrator Das Boot.