U.S. District Judge Richard Berman has decided to nullify the four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady over his supposed role in the Deflategate scandal.
The NFL’s punishment of Brady was “premised on several significant legal deficiencies,” Berman ruled, including that it had failed to provide the quarterback with adequate notice of “both his potential discipline and his alleged misconduct” as required by the league’s collective bargaining agreement with players. The decision is available in its entirety below.
“Based upon the foregoing and applicable legal authorities, the Court hereby denies the Management Council’s motion to confirm the Award and grants the Players Association’s motion to vacate the Award, thereby vacating the four-game suspension of Tom Brady, effective immediately,” Berman wrote in the conclusion.
The judge ruled that Brady had no reason to know that having a “general awareness” of deflated footballs would subject him to a punishment equal to that for violating the NFL’s collectively-bargained performance-enhancing drug policy.
Additionally, the judge said Brady had no reason to be aware that potentially violating equipment rules could result in a suspension rather than a fine. (Brady has consistently maintained that he played no role in an effort to deliberately deflate his team’s footballs.)
“No NFL policy or precedent provided notice that a player could be subject to discipline for general awareness of another person’s alleged misconduct,” Berman wrote. “And, it does not appear that the NFL has ever, prior to this case, sought to punish players for such an alleged violation.”
Berman also ruled that the arbitration hearing in which Goodell upheld Brady’s original suspension was “fundamentally unfair” because Goodell did not allow Brady’s attorneys to question NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, a right that should have been respected under league precedent.
Goodell’s refusal to provide Brady’s attorneys with notes and witness testimony from the “independent” Wells investigation also tainted the arbitration process, Berman found.
NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith celebrated “the victory of the rule of law” in a statement published to the association’s website Thursday morning.
“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,” he said. “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.”
As of now, Brady will be able to play in his team’s season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. But Goodell said in a statement that the league will appeal the ruling “to protect the integrity of the game.” “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,” he added.
Berman had previously pushed for a settlement, calling it a “rational and logical option” as he saw pros and cons to both sides’ arguments. After the NFL and its players union failed to do so during last-minute negotiations, the judge said he would deliver a ruling this week.
Deflategate started in January following the the Patriots’ 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game. In May, the NFL released the 243-page Wells Report, which suggested it was probable Brady was “at least generally aware” of team personnel deliberately deflating footballs below approved levels. The league then handed Brady a four-game suspension, which Brady appealed and commissioner Roger Goodell later upheld.
The decision is the result of a lawsuit filed by the NFL to confirm that it handled the situation properly. The league picked lower Manhattan because the courts there have been historically “pro-business,” according to Yahoo Sports’ Dan Wetzel. The NFLPA has said Brady’s suspension was the result of a “fundamentally unfair arbitration proceeding.”
A survey of NFL players by ESPN’s NFL nation in August found that while 72 percent said they think the Patriots purposefully deflated their footballs, a similar percentage believe other teams employ similar tactics. Only 16 percent said they were upset about it.