U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman on Thursday nullified the four-game suspension given to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady by the NFL over the DeflateGate case.
At issue was whether NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell followed the rules set forth in the league’s collective bargaining agreement when he suspended Brady for four games and then upheld that suspension upon appeal. The league’s main argument was that Goodell had the right to punish Brady however he saw fit, based on the collective bargaining agreement, and that courts have long deferred to arbitrators when ruling on similar labor conflicts.
Lawyers from the NFLPA, representing Brady, contended that Brady’s punishment went above and beyond anything outlined in the collective bargaining agreement and that the league kept changing the reason why it punished Brady, initially claiming he had a “general awareness” of the plot to deflate footballs but then saying he had an active role in the scheme.
The NFLPA also argued that Brady’s appeal should have been heard by someone other than Goodell, claiming he was biased against Brady.
In his ruling, Berman wrote that the NFL’s case had several “significant legal deficiencies”:
“Inadequate notice to Brady of both his potential discipline (four-game suspension) and his alleged misconduct.”
“Denial of the opportunity for Brady to examine one of two lead investigators, namely NFL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jeff Pash.”
“Denial of equal access to investigative files, including witness interview notes.”
Berman also wrote that the Brady’s punishment for an equipment violation was unduly harsh when compared to other league sanctions:
“The court finds that no player alleged or found to have had a general awareness of the inappropriate ball deflation activities of others or who allegedly schemed with others to let air out of footballs in a championship game and also had not cooperated in an ensuing investigation, reasonably could be on notice that their discipline would (or should) be the same as applied to a player who violated the NFL Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances,” Berman wrote.
Berman had urged the two sides to settle, to no avail. During testimony, he seemed skeptical of the league’s arguments, and in his ruling he said that the NFL’s justification for suspending Brady in the Wells Report – that Brady had “general awareness” of the scheme – was invalid.
“With respect to ‘general awareness’ of others’ misconduct – which is the principal finding in both the Wells Report and the Vincent Letter – Brady had no notice that such conduct was prohibited, or any reasonable certainty of potential discipline stemming from such conduct,” Berman wrote.
The decision was seen as a major loss for the NFL, which had steadfastly held that Brady broke the rules by being aware that footballs were being deflated ahead of last season’s AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. The league more or less hand-picked Berman to rule on the matter, thwarting an attempt by the NFLPA to have the case heard by a judge in Minnesota who has issued player-friendly rulings in the past.
The victory also could have positive reverberations for the players’ union beyond simply getting Brady off the hook, as it sets a favorable new precedent.
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