The king lost in court.

Photographer: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Judge Breaks Up Goodell's Monopoly on Justice

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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A federal judge has finally come down against the NFL's arbitrary brand of discipline.

U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman lifted Tom Brady's four-game suspension in the Deflategate case Thursday morning, ruling that "several significant legal discrepancies" underlie the initial punishment. Berman called out the NFL -- and especially commissioner Roger Goodell -- for applying the "conduct detrimental" to the league standard too broadly instead of citing Brady for specific violations, and for not giving the Patriots quarterback equal access to evidence the league used against him. Perhaps most notably, the judge also rightly dismissed the notion of the NFL using  supposedly independent investigators such Ted Wells and Jeff Pash as a farce. He put "independent" in quotation marks when he referenced them in his ruling.

The NFL's product, the game of football, might be seemingly infallible, but Berman's ruling pokes huge holes in Goodell's grip on power. It's the latest in the commissioner's legal losses, from Ray Rice to Adrian Peterson to Greg Hardy, and the most significant one in cementing the players' right not to be disciplined under a catch-all policy that the union has contended allows the league to essentially make it up as it goes along.

To be sure, Berman's ruling says little about the actual scandal, but the question of whether Brady was "generally aware" of a few deflated football really obscures the bigger issue. I've made no secret how silly this whole scandal is, a trumped-up controversy distracting us from real problems like off-field violence and on-field brain trauma. But the Deflategate ruling is bigger than the case itself: it's a legal indictment of the entire process of NFL discipline. 

In fact, as Deadspin's Tom Ley notes, the relative insignificance of Brady's alleged transgressions is precisely what allows this ruling to take hold, especially in the court of public opinion. Goodell might have been able to get away with haphazard discipline of wife-beaters and child-abusers -- until their appeals, that is -- but he can't hide a system so broken behind some soft footballs.

The NFL is gearing up for yet another appeal, but remember that this ruling came in what the league thought was essentially their home field -- they preemptively filed the case in Manhattan, not Minnesota, where the NFLPA has enjoyed many legal wins in labor disputes. Goodell now has to reckon with his "tough on crime" persona facing a more substantive challenge than the union has ever really been able to throw at him. Going forward, players have much more reason to expect due process, and much more recourse to fight unfair discipline.

Tom Brady just scored a big win for a group that has been denied those rights by league officials waving around the collective bargaining agreement, which the NFL will likely invoke in its appeal. Damage to the Shield -- hurting the NFL's image, or "conduct detrimental" -- is no longer a punishable act in itself. Thursday's ruling reinforces a fundamental pillar of our justice system: that a defendant must know exactly what he's charged with. And every step of the disciplinary process has been thrown some serious shade, from the investigation to the media leaks to the backpedaling of charges to fit the punishment already cast. At least for the moment, players across the league have reason to celebrate that they might no longer be subject to the singular force of Goodell's mercy.

The only player probably not celebrating today? Jimmy Garoppolo.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net