Less than eight months after Tom Brady scored a major victory in court to have his four-game suspension for his role in using purposely deflated footballs in the 2014 AFC Championship Game, a federal appeals court on Monday ruled against the Patriots quarterback and reinstated his suspension.
Two of the three judges on the Second Circuit Court of Appeals — Denny Chin and Barrington D. Parker — ruled in favor of the NFL, while the third — Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann — ruled for Brady.
It is uncertain whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will reimpose the suspension, or whether Brady will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court or ask that the case be heard before the majority of the Second Circuit judges. It is also possible Goodell and Brady could reach a settlement that would decrease the length of the suspension.
“We are pleased the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled today that the Commissioner properly exercised his authority under the collective bargaining agreement to act in cases involving the integrity of the game,” the NFL said in a statement shortly after the decision was announced. “That authority has been recognized by many courts and has been expressly incorporated into every collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and [the NFL Players Assocation] for the past 40 years.”
The NFLPA, which represented Brady, expressed disappointment about the decision.
“We fought Roger Goodell’s suspension of Tom Brady because we know he did not serve as a fair arbitrator and that players’ rights were violated under our collective bargaining agreement,” the players’ union said in a statement. “Our Union will carefully review the decision, consider all of our options and continue to fight for players’ rights and for the integrity of the game.”
Brady could miss the Patriots’ season opener in Arizona followed by home games against Miami, Houston and Buffalo. He would be eligible to make his 2016 debut in Week 5 in Cleveland.
Jimmy Garoppolo is the only other quarterback currently on the Patriots’ roster. He threw four passes in five games last season, completing one for 6 yards.
Monday’s decision reverses a ruling last Sept. 3 by federal judge Richard M. Berman, who said he found several flaws in how Goodell investigated the case. The NFL first looked into the matter when Colts general manager Ryan Grigson informed the league in the first half of their game against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. A months-long report by NFL-appointed attorney Ted Wells concluded it was “more probable than not” that the footballs used in the first half were purposely deflated and that Brady was “generally aware” of the situation.
Two of the three judges ruling in Monday’s decision said that Goodell “properly exercised his broad discretion under the collective bargaining agreement and that his procedural rulings were properly grounded in that agreement and did not deprive Brady of fundamental fairness.”
Judge Katzmann, the lone dissenter, said Goodell “exceeded his authority, to Brady’s detriment, by resting Brady’s discipline on factual findings not made in the Wells Report.”
Katzmann added, “I am troubled by the Commissioner’s decision to uphold the unprecedented four‐-game suspension. The Commissioner failed to even consider a highly relevant alternative penalty and relied, instead, on an inapt analogy to the League’s steroid policy. This deficiency, especially when viewed in combination with the shifting rationale for Brady’s discipline, leaves me to conclude that the Commissioner’s decision reflected ‘his own brand of industrial justice.’ ”
Goodell imposed Brady’s suspension in May 2015 and upheld the sanction after an appeals hearing at which Brady testified. During the hearing, the quarterback acknowledged that he destroyed his personal cellphone a day before he was scheduled to meet with Wells. Goodell cited the cellphone issue in his ruling, charging that Brady intentionally withheld evidence that was central to the case.
Goodell said last July, in announcing his decision to uphold the suspension, that Brady’s “deliberate destruction of potentially relevant evidence went beyond a mere failure to cooperate in the investigation and supported a finding that he had sought to hide evidence in his own participation in the underlying scheme to alter the footballs.”
Brady testified that he regularly destroyed his cellphones whenever he got a replacement phone.
Goodell said in February that he wouldn’t “speculate what we’re going to do depending on the outcome” of the NFL’s appeal, which was heard in early March in New York. “We’ll let the outcome be dictated by the appeals court. When it happens, we’ll deal with it then.”
The line of questioning from the judges in the March appeals hearing cast doubt about Brady’s actions, suggesting that the panel might be leaning toward upholding the league’s decision. At one point during the hearing, Chin said the “evidence of ball-tampering is compelling, if not overwhelming.”
In July, when Goodell denied Brady’s appeal of the suspension, the league said that the athlete’s “deliberate destruction of potentially relevant evidence went beyond a mere failure to cooperate in the investigation and supported a finding that he had sought to hide evidence in his own participation in the underlying scheme to alter the footballs.”
Brady had said that it was his practice to destroy his phone and SIM cards whenever he got a replacement phone.