NFL Faces Tough Questions From Judge in ‘Deflategate’ Case

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A National Football League lawyer faced tough questions from the judge handling the dispute over Tom Brady’s four-game suspension as a settlement remained out of reach.

U.S. District Judge Richard Berman, who has encouraged a settlement since the case began last month, appeared critical of the NFL’s position on several points, possibly strengthening the hand of the New England Patriots quarterback in negotiations.

In a two-hour, 20-minute hearing Wednesday in Manhattan, the judge expressed skepticism that the league’s finding Brady was probably “generally aware” team employees tampered with game balls means he participated in a scheme to deflate them on the day of the conference championship.

That’s a “a quantum leap” to make, Berman said. The Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the game.

The judge directed both Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to appear in his courtroom on Aug. 31, just days before a Sept. 4 target for a ruling in the case. Both sides agree that they want the matter decided before the Patriots’ Sept. 10 season opener at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University, said he thinks Berman’s grilling of the NFL lawyer shows he’s pushing hard for a settlement, rather than leaning toward Brady’s side in the case.

‘More Lawsuits’

A settlement will “come down to whether the commissioner wants to reduce the suspension and perhaps invite more lawsuits, or whether Tom Brady is willing to take a suspension and admit some wrongdoing,” Feldman said.

At the hearing, Berman also took issue with the league’s argument comparing ball-tampering to using banned performance-enhancing drugs. Still, he said both sides’ arguments have strengths and weaknesses, meaning a settlement would be “a logical and rational outcome.”

The court case has less to do with what happened in the Patriots’ locker room than with whether Goodell acted within his powers under the players’ collective bargaining agreement with the league.

The NFL claims the agreement gives Goodell the final say over Brady’s punishment.

“Someone’s got to make the call and under the CBA, there’s no question that call is to be made by the NFL commissioner,” argued Daniel Nash, a lawyer for the league.

Unexpected Suspension

Brady and the NFL Players Association contend Goodell’s arbitration hearing was unfair and that the commissioner was biased. They said Brady was never told he could be suspended, rather than fined, for using underinflated footballs.

They also argued that no other player had been suspended for tampering with game balls or obstructing a league investigation.

The arbitration decision “is more smear campaign than reasoned decision -- a propaganda piece written for public consumption,” they said in a court filing.

The case is National Football League Management Council v. National Football League Players Association. 15-cv-05916. U.S. District Court Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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