Texas Appellate Court Applies NFL CBA’s “Non-Injury Grievance” Provisions to Compel Arbitration of Former Star’s Career-Ending Injury Claim

In an August 1, 2019 opinion (Houston NFL Holding L.P. v. Ryans), the Houston-based First Court of Appeals enforced the National Football League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement by ordering a state trial court to compel arbitration of a premises-liability claim asserted by former All-Pro (and former Texans player) DeMeco Ryans.

Then playing for the Philadelphia Eagles, Ryans saw his football career cut tragically short when he tore his Achilles tendon in a non-contact injury suffered while playing against his former team at Houston’s NRG Stadium. Ryans sued the Texans in state district court, alleging premises-liability claims based on the team’s alleged failure to provide a reasonably safe playing field.

The Texans moved to compel arbitration under the NFL’s CBA. The arbitration clause at the center of the dispute (located in CBA Article 43, “Non-Injury Grievance”) provided:

Any dispute (hereinafter referred to as a “grievance”) arising after the execution of [the CBA] and involving the interpretation of, application of, or compliance with, any provision of [the CBA], the NFL Player Contract, the Practice Squad Player Contract, or any applicable provision of the NFL Constitution and Bylaws or NFL Rules pertaining to the terms and conditions of employment of NFL players, will be resolved exclusively in accordance with the procedure set forth in this Article, except wherever another method of dispute resolution is set forth elsewhere in [the CBA].
(Emphasis supplied.)

The First Court invoked a “presumption in favor of arbitration and to resolve any doubts as to the agreement’s scope in favor of arbitration.” Slip Op. at 8-9. Despite Article 43’s title, which suggests inapplicability to player injuries, the Court was persuaded by the Texans’ argument that the title merely distinguished a distinct category of “Injury Grievances” under the CBA. Interpreting the substantive scope of the arbitration clause, the Court found it to be broad, encompassing Ryans’s claim and its reliance upon the interpretation and application of the NFL Playing Field Specifications (which are part of the NFL Rules).

The opinion is a classic example of courts’ strong deference to and expansive application of contractual arbitration provisions.