In a major setback for the NFL, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady prevailed in his battle to have his four-game suspension overturned Thursday, as a federal judge reversed a ruling by Commissioner Roger Goodell to bench one of the league’s biggest stars in a dispute over underinflated balls he used in a January championship game.
Judge Richard M. Berman of U.S. District Court in Manhattan did not rule on whether Brady tampered with the footballs in a bid for competitive advantage. Instead, he focused on the narrower question of whether the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the players union gave Goodell the authority to carry out the suspension. Berman ruled that it did not.
The 40-page decision picks apart the NFL’s case, finding a number of faults and reflecting Berman’s skepticism in recent court hearings.
Berman said Brady could not be suspended for “general awareness” of others’ conduct, as an NFL investigative report determined.
“Brady had no notice that such conduct was prohibited or any reasonable certainty of potential discipline stemming from such conduct,” the judge wrote.
Even if the league believed Brady had obstructed the investigation, by having a cellphone destroyed before it could be fully examined, the judge sided with Brady’s argument that “there is no evidence of a record of past suspensions based purely on obstructing a league investigation.”
He found the NFL did not give Brady adequate notice of the potential penalty for the misconduct he was accused of.
An underinflated football would be easier for a quarterback to grip and throw. New England won the game in question, the AFC championship game, against the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, scoring most of its points in the second half after the Colts had complained about the balls.
Brady’s lawyers had argued that the NFL did not warn him that he could be suspended for not cooperating with the league’s investigation, as a report commissioned by the NFL asserted, or for playing a role in tampering with equipment, something that normally warrants a fine. Brady had denied any knowledge, but the NFL report said the preponderance of evidence made it likely he knew about the balls.
Berman’s ruling is a blow to Goodell, who has tried to expand his authority to suspend players for what he perceives to be violations of the integrity of the game.
Unless the NFL can get a federal appeals court to issue an emergency injunction, Brady will play in the Patriots’ opening game next Thursday, Sept. 10, against the Pittsburgh Steelers and against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Sept. 20.