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Judge nullifies Tom Brady's DeflateGate suspension

After weeks of pushing for a settlement, a federal judge has nullified Tom Brady's four-game suspension in the DeflateGate scandal.

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Tom Brady's four-game suspension from the NFL for his role in DeflateGate has been nullified by a federal judge.

The case argued by Brady and the NFLPA centered on the argument that it was unfair because NFL commissioner Roger Goodell appointed himself to hear Brady's appeal under the league's personal conduct policy. The union had planned to call Goodell as a witness in the initial appeal, but was denied that opportunity when Goodell appointed himself as the appeal officer.

One thing that the judge took issue with was the fact that the NFL refused to let the league's chief attorney, Jeff Pash, testify at Brady's appeal, something Judge Richard Berman seemed to take issue with over the course of the hearing this month.

The union also argued that the NFL's four-game suspension for Brady was inconsistent with previous punishments for tampering with equipment. Instead, the league's punishment hinged in part on what the NFL perceived as Brady's unwillingness to cooperate in the investigation. He refused to turn over his cell phone, but Brady's attorneys did reveal that they provided records and offered to track down any communications pertaining to the matter. The NFLPA argued that Goodell overstepped his authority in suspending Brady on that basis, since the league had no precedent for doing that.

Judge Berman agreed.

During the August 19, 2015 oral argument, it became apparent that no specific determination was made either in the Vincent's Disciplinary Decision Letter or the Goodell Award as to what portion of Brady's discipline was attributable to alleged ball tampering and what discipline was attributable to non-cooperation (and, for that matter, what discipline was attributable to the destruction of Brady's phone) ...

The Court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs, and non-cooperation with the ensuing Investigation. Brady also had no notice that his discipline would be the equivalent of the discipline imposed upon a player who used performance enhancing drugs.

As for what the NFL called Brady's "general awareness" of any misconduct, Judge Berman took aim at that as well.

With respect to "general awareness" of others' misconduct — which is the principal finding in both the Wells Report and the Vincent Letter — Brady had no notice that such conduct was prohibited, or any reasonable certainty of potential discipline stemming from such conduct. The Court concludes that, as a matter of law, no NFL policy or precedent notifies players that they may be disciplined (much less suspended) for general awareness of misconduct by others. And, it does not appear that the NFL has ever, prior to this case, sought to punish players for such an alleged violation.

The league's use of the "conduct detrimental" standard for punishing players also came under scrutiny from Judge Berman because there was no specific finding of such conduct in the NFL's investigation as there had been in two prior instances.

Goodell's reliance on notice of broad CBA "conduct detrimental" policy- as opposed to specific Player Policies regarding equipment violations- to impose discipline upon Brady is legally misplaced. In both the Ray Rice case and the Adrian Peterson case, the players could, perhaps, be said to appreciate that acts of domestic violence might be deemed "conduct detrimental." And yet, in both of these cases, the players were disciplined only after findings were made under the specific domestic violence policy ...


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Judge Berman tried to get the two sides to compromise on a settlement, rather than inject the court into the inner workings of the collective bargaining agreement between the league and the players. The NFL was reportedly unwilling to agree to a reduced punishment unless Brady accepted the findings of the Wells report, which famously determined that Brady's "more probable than not" participation in the plan to deflate game balls for the AFC Championship subjected him to punishment.

With Brady's suspension now eliminated, the DeflateGate saga, which dragged on for more than six months after the AFC Championship, could possibly go away. The NFL has the option to appeal the judge's decision.

The DeflateGate scandal began last January when the NFL announced it was investigating the New England Patriots for deflating footballs after they beat the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, to advance to the Super Bowl. Both Brady and head coach Bill Belichick denied knowledge of any tampering. In May, an investigation by independent (though NFL-hired) investigator Ted Wells determined that it was "more probable than not" that Brady was "generally aware" that Patriots locker room attendants had been deflating footballs.

A week later, Brady was handed a four-game suspension and the Patriots were docked $1 million and two draft picks: a first-rounder in 2016 and a fourth-rounder in 2017. The NFLPA immediately went to bat for Brady, filing an appeal on the quarterback's behalf. It seemingly had a good case, with questions about the true "independent" nature of the investigation and the lack of hard evidence, other than a few insinuating text messages, tying Brady to any wrongdoing.

Brady's appeal was struck down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, however, who heard proceedings after refusing to recuse himself at the NFLPA's request. In its statement, the NFL said that it found that Brady had destroyed his cell phone just before meeting with Wells for the investigation, and suggested that it was done deliberately to avoid presenting key evidence.

Both the NFL and NFLPA immediately ran to the courts after Goodell's decision -- the NFLPA to appeal and the NFL to get the decision confirmed. The case wound up in Judge Berman's court in New York, where Berman warned that similar cases have taken up to two years.

Brady and the Patriots will begin the 2015 season with a home game against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday, Sept. 10.

National Football League Management Council v National Football League Players Association

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