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What is the Commissioner’s Exemption List? Why Have I Never Heard of This Before?

The Commissioner’s Exemption List is a previously-not-well-known clause in the NFL Constitution and Bylaws.  Contained in Article 17 which covers “Player Limits and Eligibility,” it states:

The Exemption List is a special player status available to clubs only in unusual circumstances. The List includes those players who have been declared by the commissioner to be temporarily exempt from counting within the Active List limit. Any request for an Exemption must be sent to the Commissioner by NFLNet, e-mail, facsimile or other similar means of communication, and mist include complete facts and reasons to support such request. Only the Commissioner has the authority to place a players on the Exemption List; clubs have no such authority. Except as provided in paragraph (1) of this subsection (A), no exemption, regardless of circumstances, is automatic. The Commissioner also has the authority to determine in advance whether a player’s time on the Exemption List will be finite or will continue until the Commissioner deems the exemption should be lifted and the player returned to the active List…

Let’s break the rule down to its essential components: (1) the List is available only in unusual circumstances; (2) only the Commissioner, at his discretion, may place a player on the List; and (3) the Commissioner has the discretion to determine the length of time a player is on the List.[i]

Some examples of the unusual circumstances in which players were placed on the List include: (1) Tampa Bay running back Jeff Demps, who was placed on the list in 2013 while pursuing his U.S. Olympic track career; (2) New Orleans linebacker Jonathan Vilma in 2012 after serving his ban for Bountygate; (3) Tampa Bay safety Tanard Jackson in 2011 after serving a substance abuse ban; and (4) Philadelphia quarterback Mike Vick at the end of his dogfighting ban.

Based on this information, a player has never been placed on the Exemption List as a result of pending legal action or for what could be considered as discipline for engaging in “conduct detrimental.”  Due to the unprecedented nature of placing players on the List in response to “conduct detrimental,” it was crucial for the League to negotiate placement of Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy on the List with the players, their agents and importantly the NFL Players Association.

The inclusion of the Players Association is critical because Article 42(xv) of the NFL-NFLPA Collective Bargaining Agreement places a cap on the amount a team may discipline a player for conduct detrimental to the team. A player can only be suspended for a maximum of 4 weeks. The CBA states that, “This maximum applies without limitation to any deactivation of a player in response to player conduct, and any such deactivation, even with pay, shall be considered discipline.”

Read in conjunction with Article 17 of the NFL Constitution it is clear that the NFL had to negotiate a deal with Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and the NFLPA to deactivate them longer than 4 games.  Furthermore, because a player cannot be punished twice for the same conduct, if the NFL wishes to modify or increase the discipline then the NFL must have made it clear that this discipline was not a final disposition.

The details of the agreements are unknown, but presumably lay out the NFL and the players’ options pending the outcome of their legal cases. For instance, if a player is found guilty, but does not receive a jail sentence, will he be subject to further discipline? Would that discipline take the form of a fine or more missed games?

Going forward, not much is known about how the NFL will use the List to distance itself from players who engage in conduct detrimental, but it was certainly a creative legal maneuver to buy themselves some time.

[i]You just made the List buddy.” – Francis aka “Psycho” Stripes.

About Andrew Sensi

Andrew lives in Reston, Virginia and works in a boutique firm which specializes in civil litigation and intellectual property. He has worked in sports at various levels and capacities since high school as a coach, manager, and in the legal department of a leading sports agency. Andrew graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University School of Law in 2012 with a certificate in Sports Law. While at Tulane, Andrew served as an officer for the Sports Law Society, and as Business Editor for The Sports Lawyers Journal. Prior to attending Tulane, Andrew graduated from the University of Virginia in 2007 with a degree in Economics.

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