Each of the Big Four sports leagues in the U.S. have collective bargaining agreements (CBA), which are contracts between the leagues and their respective players associations. The Big Four sports leagues include the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Baseball (MLB). The collective bargaining agreements all have provisions regarding disciplinary policies; however, each agreement varies with how discipline is handled.
Disciplining players for improper conduct has always been a subject of discussion within the sports world. While creating disciplinary procedures is not easy, the NBA, NFL, and MLB fall behind the NHL in administering and implementing these procedures.
In the NBA, a player can be disciplined if the commissioner determines, after a completed investigation, that the player has violated the proper conduct expected from the players. The player and the NBA Players Association are involved throughout in the entire process from the initial interviews to the appeals process to the handing down of any punishment. The commissioner can also be involved in those stages as well.
The NFL can take disciplinary actions if there is an allegation that the Personal Conduct Policy has been violated. The NFL will then conduct an investigation. Once the investigation has concluded, the league’s Special Counsel of Investigation will determine if there has been a violation. The player can respond to the Special Counsel and appeal the result of the investigation. After reviewing the Special Counsel’s decision and the player’s response and appeal, the commissioner will make a final decision regarding the discipline.
In accordance with MLB’s CBA, a player and the MLB Players Association will be notified of an investigation due to alleged off-field improper conduct. At the conclusion of the investigation, a pre-discipline conference will be held, and the commissioner will present the result of the investigation as well as evidence that supports the result. A player is then allowed to discover and present any materials or evidence that could help in proving his evidence negate his guilt or discredit any witness. Depending on the offense, the commissioner or Chief Baseball Officer will hand down a punishment and the punishment can be appealed.
The disciplinary procedures of the three aforementioned leagues may not be entirely wrong, but the NHL provides a great template for fairness and justice concerning disciplinary procedures for its players; one that the NBA, NFL, and MLB can look to when trying to improve their own disciplinary procedures. The NHL’s CBA allows for Commissioner Discipline for Off-Ice Conduct. Upon determining a potential violation, the league needs to notify the NHL Players Association (NHLPA) and the player. Once notified, the player is allowed to ask for a delay in proceedings to speak with an attorney.
Prior to the hearing, the league has to disclose all evidence and witnesses it plans on presenting against the player at the hearing.  The NHLPA and the player must also disclose all evidence and witnesses they plan on presenting in support of the player at the hearing. In addition, all parties must limit any statements about the hearing until the hearing has been held.
League officials who are prosecuting the case are not allowed to discuss the proceedings with anyone who is deciding the case (ex. the commissioner).  At the conclusion of the hearing, the commissioner determines the punishment. A player can then file a written appeal to an impartial arbitrator. The arbitrator, after holding his own hearing, then decides whether the commissioner’s decision was supported by sufficient evidence and was reasonable based on the issue at hand, the proportionality of the violation and punishment, and the interests of the league and the player.
The NHL’s disciplinary procedure is the closest to the procedures used in the American criminal justice system. For example, in order to minimize the potential for any bias, NHL officials are not to communicate with officials in different capacities within the process. Similarly, in the criminal justice system, the prosecutor, trial judge, jury, and the appellate court are all different people or groups who do not communicate about a case outside of official proceedings. The NHL also requires its arbitrator to review the sufficiency of the evidence which is similar to what an appellate court would could also look at when a case is on appeal.
The NHL might be the smallest and arguably the least popular of the Big Four leagues, but it has the fairest and most just disciplinary procedure. Thus, the NHL reigns king when it comes to disciplinary procedures.
* Staff Writer, Villanova University Sports Law Society Blog; J.D. Candidate, May 2020, Villanova University School of Law.
 Steve Davis, With “Big Four” Mentality, MLS Still Fighting for a Place Among Other Leagues, FourFourTwo (Feb. 22, 2017), https://www.fourfourtwo.com/us/features/major-league-soccer-big-four-sports-when-will-mls-pass-nhl. (Major League Soccer (MLS) is not a member of the Big Four just yet because of the distinct financial gap between the Big Four and MLS)
 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, Article VI § 11, National Basketball Players Association (Jan. 19, 2017), http://nbpa.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/2017-NBA-NBPA-Collective-Bargaining-Agreement.pdf.