Tom Brady beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, but his victory Thursday could be even longer lasting.
The New England Patriots quarterback took the air out of the NFL’s authority when judge Richard M. Berman said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell overstepped his bounds in suspending Brady for the first four games of the regular season for being “generally aware” the Patriots were using footballs that weren’t properly inflated for the first half of their AFC Championship Game win over the Indianapolis Colts.
Brady has insisted that he played no role in the incident, but the NFL released a lengthy statement after an investigation by Ted Wells that tried to connect the dots and implicated Brady as the man who “more probable than not” had knowledge of Patriots employees deflating football below the prescribed inflation standards set by NFL rules.
But the court found that Brady having knowledge of the situation wasn’t on the same level of him committing the act and the NFL can’t equate his punishment, a four-game suspension, with a player that violated the steroids policy. Players are notified of the ramifications of violating the steroids policy, but they aren’t offered the rules of Game Day Operations, which was in play with Brady’s case.
Related: Brady wins appeal over NFL
“This decision should prove, once and for all, that our Collective Bargaining Agreement does not grant this Commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading,” NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said in a statement after Brady’s suspension was overturned. “While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of Commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed.”
If Brady had participated in the act of deflating balls rather than simply having knowledge of it, then Brady deserved punishment. The length of the suspension can be debated, but knowingly breaking the rules of the game deserves some level of punishment – a suspension or a fine. For now, anyway, Brady’s suspension was overturned and the NFL’s power limited.
But the key elements of the preceding paragraph are “if” and “for now.” Since the release of the Wells report, it has been picked apart and the NFL says it will appeal the decision.
But even it isn’t upheld, Brady and the NFLPA’s fight has put another black mark on the previous year of Goodell’s reign. Connect-the-dots reports weren’t good enough for Berman, even if they were good enough for the NFL to impose a suspension against one of its most popular and successful players. In essence, the court ruled that the NFL could not apply punishment for violating the game-day operations rules to players when they aren’t informed of the rules or the ramifications for breaking them, and Brady was denied a fair arbitration when the NFL refused to make lawyer Jeff Pash available after Pash was involved in editing the Wells report.
Berman repeatedly requested that the NFL and Brady go into settlement talks in August, but both sides stood firm – Brady wanting to maintain his innocence and the NFL hoping to maintain its power in disciplining players. The NFL has routinely had their power upheld in court in domestic violence cases and other player discipline, as the collective bargaining agreement gives the commissioner broad range to make disciplinary decisions in those cases, but this case was different from the start. It dealt with the rules of game-day operations, and while general managers, coaches and equipment personnel are notified of those rules and potential fines for breaking them, players aren’t.
No matter the final outcome of the case if/when it is appealed, both sides took a hit. In the court of public opinion, Brady was sacked for destroying his cell phone that the league said contained 10,000 messages, with several of them that went between Brady and the Patriots’ former employees who were accused of deflating the footballs cited in the league’s investigation.
In his statement on the suspension of Brady, Goodell concluded Brady “knew about, approved of, consented to, and provided inducements and rewards” to have the footballs deflated below prescribed pressure levels.
Berman’s ruling is a victory for not only Brady, but also for the players union, which has brought the NFL to court several times to reign in Goodell’s disciplinary power. In most cases, the courts have sided with Goodell, citing the CBA signed by both sides. However, the lack of proof in the Brady case troubled Berman, who aggressively questioned the NFL in several hearings and rebuked the league for not making Pash available as a witness, despite his involvement in issuing the Wells report to the public.
At one point, the union accused the NFL of a “smear campaign.” No matter Berman’s ruling, or the results of an appeal, both sides lose in this case. Brady destroying his cell phone looks suspicious at best. The NFL getting called on its investigation puts their previous investigations in a fog, too.
And, yet, the NFL rolls on, popular as ever. And the Patriots are now free to resume their campaign to defend their Super Bowl championship with Brady.
They have given the majority of their preseason snaps to backup Jimmy Garoppolo in anticipation of him starting the regular season opener. Garappolo has completed 61 of 80 passes for 554 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions in the first three preseason games.
Brady has completed only 10 of 22 passes for 107 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions. Yet, his completion of the DeflateGate case, if this is indeed the end, is Brady’s biggest win yet and one that could have greater ramifications on the NFL’s power in the future.