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Tom Brady's DeflateGate suspension was reinstated because that's what players agreed to

Dear God, DeflateGate will never die.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

DeflateGate came back to shatter our idyllic NFL offseason. Tom Brady's four-game suspension was reinstated by the United States' Second District Court of Appeals on Monday, putting a story that dates back to 2014 back in national headlines just days before the 2016 NFL Draft.

The story won't end after Monday. Brady and the Patriots fought madly to have the suspension overturned initially, a battle they won when a federal judge ruled before the 2015 season that commissioner Roger Goodell overstepped his authority. They have recourse to get the decision reversed. Unfortunately for them, the Second Circuit parsed the language of the collective bargaining agreement and laid out how Roger Goodell acted within his power according to the CBA that players agreed to in 2011.

Right now, Brady has two options:

1) Petition for an en banc hearing, which would be a re-hearing of the appeal in front of the entire Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The court isn't likely to grant him the re-hearing -- it only heard eight cases from 2000-2010.


2) Appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

Yeah. The Supreme Court.

Somehow this exasperating boondoggle of a story keeps getting more exasperating and boondoggle-y. If there is an end in sight, it's because the CBA is weighted heavily in Goodell's favor.

The court's decision had little to do with DeflateGate and a lot to do with the CBA

Debates about psi and the Ideal Gas Law are mostly academic now. The Second Circuit made it very clear in its decision that it is primarily concerned with what Goodell is allowed to do under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement between players and the NFL.

The court explains that it tends to be deferential to arbitration in labor disputes. It recognizes that an arbitrator -- in this case, Goodell -- can make an imperfect decision, and that "even if an arbitrator makes mistakes of fact or law, we may not disturb an award so long as he acted within the bounds of his bargained‐for authority."

According to the court, Goodell can do just about whatever he wants.

The Commissioner was authorized to impose discipline for, among other things, "conduct detrimental to the integrity of, or public confidence, in the game of professional football." In their collective bargaining agreement, the players and the League mutually decided many years ago that the Commissioner should investigate possible rule violations, should impose appropriate sanctions, and may preside at arbitrations challenging his discipline. Although this tripartite regime may appear somewhat unorthodox, it is the regime bargained for and agreed upon by the parties, which we can only presume they determined was mutually satisfactory.

Here, the court admits that Goodell's unilateral authority is "unorthodox," but given the nature of a CBA it has to assume that all parties mutually granted him that authority.

When Brady's suspension was initially overturned, the judge found that Goodell overstepped his bounds by: 1) Not properly notifying Brady that what he allegedly did was prohibited and 2) Never establishing a standard suspension length for the violation. The Second Circuit court looked at the judge's reasoning and essentially said, "Yeah, but that's what players signed up for."

For example, in last year's appeal the NFL Players Association brought up the fact that a four-game suspension is also the punishment for a player who has been caught violating the league's steroid policy, and in that regard four games for slightly deflated footballs seems extreme. It argued that a better comparable would be the league's stance on tampering substances like stickum.

The Second Circuit court refused to weigh the merit of the length of the suspension. The important thing was that Goodell acted within his power.

We do not believe this contention is consistent with our obligation to afford arbitrators substantial deference, and by suggesting that the stickum policy is the more appropriate analogy, the dissent improperly weighs in on a pure sports question -- whether using stickum by one player is similar to tampering with footballs used on every play.

This could be an unholy mess

The court's decision was a substantial reassertion of the commissioner's power. DeflateGate may have been as good a case as any to highlight why giving one man so much authority is a bad idea. The actual evidence that the Patriots deflated footballs ahead of the 2015 AFC Championship game and Brady knew about it became flimsy as time wore on, and the "conduct detrimental" standard for discipline was stretched to its limit.

If Brady decides to eat his suspension, or fights back and loses, it may take until the current CBA runs out in 2021 for any kind of challenge to Goodell to take place. Meanwhile, players are unhappy, and increasingly so are owners. Goodell has been a consistently inconsistent disciplinarian, suggesting he is a bad fit for the role.

This has been a pleasantly quiet offseason. We'll be incredibly lucky if it stays that way. Given how DeflateGate has gone so far, how can it end any other way than a 4-4 split in the Supreme Court?

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