NFL commissioner Roger Goodel has been criticized in court over the years, but a federal appeals court agrees with Goodell on one point: He’s right to let the AFC and NFC champions face each other in the Super Bowl .
On February 4, 2021, three days before the Kansas City Chiefs face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV—Patricia Breckenridge, an Illinois resident, sued Goodell in federal district court in Chicago. She asked for an injunction to ‘stop ‘the Super Bowl’ until [the] Cleveland Browns are placed” in the game.
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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 a season. Mayfield has since lost his starting job to new ones. acquired Deshaun Watson. The Browns could even cut the former Heisman Trophy winner, who this week said he felt “disrespectfulby the team that drafted him first overall in the 2018 draft.
But during the 2020 season, the Browns were flying high. They defeated top rival Pittsburgh Steelers in a wildcard game before losing to the Chiefs in a divisional playoff. The Chiefs then overthrew the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship.
Breckenridge’s complaint warned that if Goodell did not insert the defeated Browns into the Super Bowl, the commissioner would be “sued for $10 million.” She explained that this high number was intended “to compensate the Cleveland Browns for their rightful place in the Super Bowl”. She also spoke about the loss of a ring and “the pain and suffering”.
Breckenridge added that she had “suffered from the fact that her relative was not allowed to play”. Her complaint did not identify the parent who allegedly played for the Browns, but she stressed that she would show that the “actions of [Goodell] are malicious, intentional [and] deliberate” and constitute “a reckless disregard for the rights of the applicant and his relatives”.
Representing herself in the litigation, Breckenridge added a separate theory of liability: “The commissioner continues to violate his contract with the NFL for a helmet-to-helmet collision that could cause serious injury or death.”
Neither theory has found a receptive audience with four federal judges.
In March 2021, Judge Matthew Kennelly dismissed the case with prejudice. He found that Breckenridge’s request that the Browns be placed in the Super Bowl “has no merit and is frivolous.” The judge added that while Breckenridge ‘referred to a parent’s football-related injuries’, she ‘does not claim to have injured herself’ and ‘does not have standing to sue for injury to anyone. else”.
Breckenridge appealed. Her appeal brief identified the Browns player she says is her relative: offensive tackle Jedrick Wills Jr., the 10th overall pick in the 2020 draft.
The alleged relationship is not really close.
“Mrs. Breckenridge,” the appeal brief states, “is the great-grandcousin of professional football player Jedrick Wills, and her father, James T. Breckenridge, Sr. is the great-great-uncle of Jedrick Wills, Jr. who was a deputy during World War II, and his brother James T. Breckenridge, Jr. is a Purple Heart recipient during the Vietnam War . . . ”
The memoir further stated that Goodell’s father, U.S. Senator Charles Goodell, “was right to oppose the Vietnam War.[,] IMO. He added that Breckenridge had endured “an ordeal of anguish and emotional stress injuries”.
On April 8, a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the dismissal of the lawsuit. The panel included three prominent judges: Chief Justice Diane Sykes and Justices Frank Easterbrook and Michael Brennan. Sykes was on then-President Donald Trump’s shortlist for the United States Supreme Court, while Easterbrook was on then-President George W. Bush’s shortlist.
The panel found that Breckenridge “does not address [Judge Kennelly’s] reasoning or making a persuasive legal argument that could provide a basis for perverting the judgment”. He agreed with Judge Kennelly that “her claim regarding the Browns’ loss is legally frivolous” and that she “does not have standing to press charges on behalf of football players who suffered injuries”.
Goodell was represented by attorneys Todd Ohlms and Genesis Sanchez Tavarez of Proskauer Rose.
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