Tom Brady won his federal "DeflateGate" lawsuit against the NFL.
Manhattan federal judge Richard Berman on Thursday overturned NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's four-game suspension of the New England Patriots quarterback for allegedly being aware of a plan to use underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game in January against the Indianapolis Colts. Berman also accused Goodell of abusing his power by "dispensing his own brand of industrial justice."
Berman upheld a challenge by Brady and the players union, who argued that Goodell was biased, Brady didn't get a fair hearing, and the NFL labor agreement only allows fines for equipment violations.
Berman ruled that Brady had received inadequate notice that suspension was a possible penalty for deflating footballs, and that Brady had inadequate access to NFL counsel Jeff Pash as a witness and to investigative files at his disciplinary hearing.
The judge expressed dissatisfaction with the NFL's claim that Goodell settled on a four-game suspension because similar penalties had been imposed for steroid use, and said Goodell had abused his management powers.
"Often steroid use has to do with critical issues of health, injury, addiction, and peer pressure, among factors," Berman wrote. "None of these factors is [remotely] present here."
"It is the law of the shop to provide professional football players with advance notice of prohibited conduct and of potential discipline," the judge added. "Because there was no notice of a four-game suspension in the circumstances presented here, Commissioner Goodell may be said to have dispensed his own brand of industrial justice."
An independent investigation by Ted Wells earlier this year found that it was "more likely than not" that Brady was at least "generally aware" of a Patriots ball-tampering scheme. But Brady and the union said "generally aware" was not a standard for discipline recognized in the labor agreement.
Berman said that NFL policies specified only fines as a potential punishment for an equipment violation, and nothing in the league's collective bargaining agreement indicated that "general awareness" was a basis for discipline.
"Brady had no notice that such conduct was prohibited," the judge wrote.
Goodell issued a statement Thursday signifying the league's intent to appeal the decision.
"We are grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today's decision," Goodell wrote. "We will appeal today's ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game. The commissioner's responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle, and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end. While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season."
DeMaurice Smith, executive director of the NFL Players' Association issued a statement about the ruling on Thursday afternoon.
"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," Smith said. "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.
Brady's suspension was scheduled to begin in the Patriots' first game Sept. 10. In addition to its planned appeal, the NFL also can seek a stay from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, but legal experts say the court is more likely to let Brady play and let the suspension take effect only if it overturns Berman.
In Goodell's earlier decision to uphold the suspension, he wrote that the closest comparison for a suspension for tampering with footballs was that of a suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs. Berman's court ruling issued Thursday said that "cannot, as a matter of law, serve as adequate notice of discipline for Brady," and added that should a comparison "cannot reasonably be used."
Brady and NFL commissioner Roger Goodell had held settlement talks, but Berman announced Monday that there would be no deal.
Brady was suspended on May 11 for the first four games of the season by NFL vice president Troy Vincent. Brady appealed the decision and appeared before Goodell during a 10-hour hearing at NFL headquarters in Manhattan on June 23. Goodell upheld the decision in a ruling in late July.
Brady has been adamant about not admitting guilt in connection with the use of deflated footballs, arguing he did not participate in a scheme to have equipment workers Jim McNally or John Jastremski take air out to make the balls easier to grip as an investigation by Ted Wells reported.
"We are happy for the victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans," Smith said. "This court's decision to overturn the NFL Commissioner again should signal to every NFL owner that collective bargaining is better than legal losses. Collective bargaining is a much better process that will lead to far better results."