The AP reports that a federal judge has sided with star New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in his case against the NFL, overturning the 4-game suspension that league commissioner Roger Goodell imposed on him for his alleged role in the alleged deflation of game balls used during last season’s AFC championship game. The league has the option of appealing the ruling. (Update, 12:55 p.m.: Goodell says the league will indeed appeal but it will reportedly not seek a stay of Thursday’s ruling, which means Brady will eligible to play for the Patriots when this season begins.)
Judge Richard Berman’s ruling, as Deadspin notes, addresses the mechanics of the NFL’s disciplinary process rather than Brady’s culpability in ball deflation. The NFL suspended Brady in May, concluding based on an investigation by lawyer Ted Wells (an investigation which was supervised by NFL VP Jeff Pash) that the quarterback was likely “generally aware” that Patriots employees deflated balls used in the Jan. 18 championship game below the lower pressure boundary prescribed in league rules. A letter to Brady explained that his suspension was also punishment for his alleged failure to cooperate fully with the investigation. Brady appealed the suspension, then sued the NFL after Goodell confirmed the penalty in July. Berman ruled that the league did not provide Brady with adequate due process before and after suspending him. The suspension is referred to in Berman’s ruling as “the Award.” From the ruling:
The Award is premised upon several significant legal deficiencies, including (A) inadequate notice to Brady of both his potential discipline (four-game suspension) and his alleged misconduct; (B) denial of the opportunity for Brady to examine one of two lead investigators, namely NFL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jeff Pash; and (C) denial of equal access to investigative files, including witness interview notes.
(You can read the entire ruling here.)
Wrote Berman regarding item A: “The Court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs, and non-cooperation with the ensuing Investigation.” Items B and C in the paragraph above refer to decisions that Goodell made while hearing Brady’s appeal before upholding the suspension in July.
Though Berman’s ruling did not address the merits of the NFL’s claims about Brady, it does question whether the league’s investigation of him was actually “independent,” repeatedly putting the word in scare quotes. (As mentioned, an NFL VP supervised the investigation, and a lawyer from investigator Ted Wells’ firm asked questions on the NFL’s behalf during Brady’s appeal hearing.) There has never been direct evidence that Brady knew about or managed the alleged scheme to break rules by deflating balls; the NFL’s assertion that ball deflation occurred in the first place is based on generally flimsy evidence including measurements taken but not written down before the game by an NFL official.
As ESPN’s Trey Wingo writes, this is the NFL’s fourth high-profile legal defeat in recent cases related to player discipline: Judges or arbitrators also overturned penalties imposed by commissioner Goodell against Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice, and New Orleans Saints players involved in the “Bountygate” scandal.
The NFL season begins Thursday, Sept. 10 with a game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and … the New England Patriots.
This post has been updated with new information.