A federal judge delivered a stunning victory for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Thursday, overturning NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's four-game suspension for Brady's alleged role in using purposely deflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 18.
Goodell announced shortly after U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman's 40-page decision was released that the league would appeal the ruling to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The league said, however, that it would not request a stay of the suspension, thereby allowing Brady to play this season. The Patriots' first game is next Thursday night against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a nationally televised game at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Berman took the unusual step of overturning an arbitration case involving a private corporation with a collective bargaining agreement because he found that the NFL failed to give Brady adequate notice that he faced a suspension for his alleged role in a plan to deflate the footballs before the game against the Colts, or for his move to destroy a cell phone he had used from November 2014 until early March 2015. Berman also cited the league's unwillingness to allow Brady or his attorneys to cross-examine NFL lead attorney Jeffrey Pash, who co-authored a report with attorney Ted Wells on the deflated footballs issue, during the quarterback's appeal on June 23. Berman also said the league's failure to allow Brady to examine interview notes from Brady's meeting with NFL investigators in March was another factor in ruling against the league.
Berman's ruling did not offer an opinion on whether or not Brady actually participated in a scheme to purposely deflate the footballs. Wells' report concluded that it was "more probable than not" that the footballs were purposely deflated to below the minimum 12.5 PSI allowed by league rules, and that Brady was "generally aware" of the arrangement.
Berman chided the NFL for equating Brady's alleged plan to deflate the footballs to the league's punishment for a first-time violator of the performance-enhancing drugs policy, which carries a four-game suspension. NFL attorney Daniel Nash explained in an Aug. 19 hearing before Berman in his New York courtroom that purposely deflating footballs amounted to an attempt to gain a competitive advantage, similar to a player using PEDs. Berman wasn't buying it.
"The Court is unable to perceive 'notice' of discipline, or any comparability between a violation of the Steroid Policy and a 'general awareness' of the inappropriate activities of others, or even involvement in a scheme by others to deflate game balls on January 18, 2015, and noncooperation in a football deflation investigation," Berman wrote. "Oral presentations before the Court on August 19, 2015 did little to clarify the Commissioner's reliance upon Steroid Policy disciplinary measures in Brady's case."
Goodell said in a statement announcing the league's intention to appeal, "We are grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today's decision. We will appeal today's ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game."
Goodell added that "the commissioner's responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle, and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end. While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season."
It is uncertain when the NFL's appeal will be heard, although it is typical for cases that reach the appellate courts to take several months.
NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith applauded Berman's decision.
"The rights of Tom Brady and of all NFL players under the collective bargaining agreement were affirmed today by a federal judge in a court of the NFL's choosing," said Smith. "This decision should prove, once and for all, that our collective bargaining agreement does not grant this commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading. While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed."
Berman cited former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's decision in December 2012 to overturn all player suspensions in the Bountygate case, in which several players, head coach Sean Payton, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and general manager Mickey Loomis were suspended in connection with a scheme to reward players for big hits against opposing players. Tagliabue vacated the player suspensions handed down by Goodell, and included a passage in his decision that Berman felt related to the Brady case.
"There is no evidence of a record of past suspensions based purely on obstructing a League investigation," Berman quoted from Tagliabue's decision. "In my forty years of association with the NFL, I am aware of many instances of denials in disciplinary proceedings that proved to be false, but I cannot recall any suspension for such fabrication. There is no evidence of a record of past suspensions based purely on obstructing a League investigation."
The NFL had argued that part of Brady's suspension was because of his decision to destroy his cell phone shortly before meeting with Wells and his team of investigators.
"As I have said during this process and throughout his Patriots career, Tom Brady is a classy person of the highest integrity," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. H"e represents everything that is great about this game and this league. Yet, with absolutely no evidence of any actions of wrongdoing by Tom in the Wells report, the lawyers at the league still insisted on imposing and defending unwarranted and unprecedented discipline. Judge Richard Berman understood this and we are greatly appreciative of his thoughtful decision that was delivered today. Now, we can return our focus to the game on the field."
Berman also noted that previous cases where equipment was tampered with, including a 2009 game between the Jets and Patriots in which one of the Jets' kicking balls was found to have been illegally altered by an equipment staffer, was another reason he found the league's move to suspend Brady inconsistent with past sanctions. In that case, Jets kicker Jay Feely, who appeared in court on Monday during a final round of settlement discussions, was not punished by the league.
"The Jets' kicker [Feely], the player who could have benefitted from the alleged 'attempt to gain a competitive advantage,' was not investigated, let alone disciplined."