Brady Free to Start Opener After Beating Goodell in Court

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady leaves federal court after appealing the National Football League's (NFL) decision to suspend him for four games of the 2015 season on August 12, 2015 in New York City.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady leaves federal court after appealing the National Football League's (NFL) decision to suspend him for four games of the 2015 season on August 12, 2015 in New York City.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images
  • U.S. judge throws out Brady's four-game Deflategate suspension
  • Goodell vows to appeal to protect `integrity of the game'

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady can suit up for the NFL’s season opener after a judge tossed his four-game suspension for using underinflated footballs in a January playoff game.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell isn’t giving up the fight, though. He said the league will appeal U.S. District Judge Richard Berman’s ruling to “protect the integrity of the game.” That probably won’t sideline Brady this year as the process drags out.

Tom Brady
Tom Brady
Photographer: Michael Nagle/Bloomberg

The ruling boosts the Patriots’ likelihood of repeating as Super Bowl champions, with oddsmakers in Las Vegas already giving the team a better chance to win the opening game on Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers with Brady at the helm rather than backup Jimmy Garoppolo.

Brady scored the win in court as Berman ruled Thursday in a 40-page opinion that the league failed to give him proper notice of the potential discipline, denied him the chance to question lead investigators and didn’t give him access to files in the case.

Industrial Justice

Goodell “dispensed his own brand of industrial justice,” Berman said.

The decision is another blow to the NFL, following a string of decisions on punishment handed down by Goodell and later altered to a lesser penalty.

In the past two years, Ray Rice, formerly a running back for the Baltimore Ravens, and Greg Hardy, a defensive end now with Dallas Cowboys, had their suspensions overturned or reduced by arbitrators, and Goodell’s indefinite suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was also thrown out by a federal judge.

The National Football League Players Association called Berman’s decision a “victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans.”

The union contract with the league doesn’t give the commissioner the authority to be “unfair, arbitrary and misleading,” the NFLPA said in an e-mailed statement.

Commissioner’s Powers

The league’s appeal is about re-establishing the commissioner’s powers, said Gabe Feldman, director of the sports law program at Tulane University.

“We are seeing the evolution, or devolution, of the exercise of the commissioner’s power,” Feldman said. “This gives a playbook for the player’s association to challenge suspensions in the future.”

An NFL investigation found that Brady probably knew team staffers deflated game balls below required limits before the team’s 38-point win over the Indianapolis Colts in the conference championship game.

The controversy, which has become known as Deflategate, overshadowed the two-week lead-up to the Super Bowl, which the Patriots won 28-24 over the Seattle Seahawks, and the league’s 2015 pre-season. The league suspended Brady in May.

The judge said he had a hard time understanding the NFL’s conclusion that Brady was being disciplined because he was “generally aware” two members of the Patriot’s equipment staff took air out of the footballs.

General Awareness

"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.

The judge, who referred to the controversy in court as “the deflation situation,” also said the NFL’s own investigators didn’t know with absolute certainty if the footballs had been tampered with and ultimately depended on “assumptions and information that is uncertain.”

The judge wasn’t asked to consider whether the footballs were tampered with in order for Brady to gain an advantage in the playoff game, but instead reviewed whether the process was fair.

Since Brady will be on the field, there isn’t urgency to rush the appeals process, Feldman said.

“This case could be decided over the course of several months, and could leak into the off season and into next season,” he said.

Latest Loss

It’s the latest is a series of losses for Goodell.

Hardy had his domestic abuse ban cut to four games from 10 by an arbitrator. Peterson’s indefinite suspension following his conviction in an abuse case involving his 4-year-old son was thrown out by a federal judge. And Rice’s indefinite suspension for having struck his then-fiancee in an elevator was overturned by an arbitrator.

The Patriots’ starter since 2001, Brady, 38, has led the franchise to four Super Bowl titles, winning the championship game MVP Award in three of them. A 10-time Pro Bowl selection, he’s also won the NFL’s season-long MVP twice.

The Patriots-Steelers game has been off the books in Las Vegas since Brady’s suspension was announced, with oddsmakers waiting on the quarterback’s status before taking bets.

Jeffrey Sherman, assistant manager at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, said the Patriots will likely be favored by 6 1/2 points if Brady plays, as opposed to 3 points if he doesn’t.

Had the four-game suspension been upheld, he would have also missed games against the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars and Dallas Cowboys.

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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