Chalk up another win for Tom Brady.
A federal judge deflated "Deflategate" Thursday, erasing the New England quarterback's four-game suspension for a controversy that the NFL claimed threatened the integrity of the game.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell went too far in affirming punishment of the Super Bowl winning quarterback. Brady has insisted he played no role in a conspiracy to deflate footballs below the allowable limit at last season's AFC championship game.
The written decision frees Brady to prepare for the Sept. 10 season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Berman either had to uphold the four-game suspension or throw it out completely; he could not author a lesser punishment for Brady.
"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," the NFL Players Association said in a statement. "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."
"No NFL policy or precedent notifies players that they may be disciplined (much less suspended) for general awareness of misconduct by others"
Goodell said the NFL will appeal the ruling.
"We are grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today's decision," Goodell said in a statement. "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."
The ruling was a surprise to some legal experts who believed Berman was merely pressuring the league to settle when he criticized its handling of the investigation and discipline over the last eight months.
The league's investigation conducted by New York-based attorney Ted Wells, which was released in May, stopped short of finding as fact that the balls were deliberately deflated on Brady's orders. The NFL’s threshold for imposing discipline requires merely a finding of strong probability of wrongdoing. The report found that it was "more probable than not" that Brady was "at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities" in the balls being deflated.
"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," Berman wrote in his decision. "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."
Brady's attorney, Don Yee, called the outcome of the report pre-determined and blamed the NFL for its lack of standards or protocols in handling footballs prior to games.
Although Brady was uncooperative with investigators, refusing to turn over his cellphone, two team employees did. Text messages between John Jastremski, a team equipment assistant, and locker room attendant Jim McNally, who appears to call himself the "deflator," left little room for doubt that footballs were purposely doctored for Brady's benefit.
Goodell, though, went beyond the initial investigation report, finding in late July as a result of testimony from Brady and others that the quarterback conspired with the ball handlers and tried to obstruct the league's probe, including by destroying his cellphone.
The commissioner said he concluded Brady "knew about, approved of, consented to, and provided inducements and rewards" to ensure balls were deflated.
Berman attacked the league while questioning one of its lawyers at two hearings, citing a lack of proof against Brady and asking how Goodell settled on a four-game suspension instead of other discipline. In his decision, Berman blasted the league, saying that if Brady indeed did have a hand in deflating the footballs, he could reasonably expect a fine but not a suspension, per the disciplinary guidelines laid out in the collective bargaining agreement.
"A player's right to notice is at the heart of the CBA and, for that matter, of our criminal and civil justice systems," Berman wrote.
He warned the league that he had the authority to overturn its punishment of Brady if he found the NFL acted unfairly by refusing to deliver NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash as a witness even though he worked on the NFL investigation.
"Denied the opportunity to examine Pash at the arbitral hearing, Brady was prejudiced," Berman wrote in his decision. "He was foreclosed from exploring, among other things, whether the Pash/Wells investigation was truly 'independent,' and how and why the NFL's General Counsel came to edit a supposedly independent investigation report."
Berman had repeatedly urged both sides to settle and tone down their rhetoric. At a hearing Monday attended by Brady and Goodell, the judge announced that both sides had "tried quite hard" to reach a deal in morning talks. But the case was left for him to decide.
As they negotiated, the sides attacked each other in court papers.
In one August court filing, the union said the four-game suspension displayed "a clearly biased agenda -- not an effort at fairness and consistency," and it criticized Goodell's ruling upholding the suspension as a "smear campaign," a "propaganda piece written for public consumption."
In its papers, the NFL said there was "ample support" in evidence for the commissioner to conclude Brady was involved in efforts by the Patriots equipment personnel to deflate footballs.
The Patriots routed the Colts by a 45-7 score in the Jan. 18 AFC Championship game, putting them in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks. The lopsided score prompted many experts to doubt whether any advantage gained by deflating footballs had an impact. But reports that the team was under investigation for deflating game balls dominated the news during the two weeks leading up to the game, in which the Patriots came from behind to win, 28-24. Although New England was aided by an inexplicable call by Seahwaks Coach Pete Carroll to pass instead of run from the one-yard line, leading to an interception by the Patriots that iced the game, it was Brady who was named MVP.
Brady finished the game with 37 completions in 50 attempts for 328 yards and four touchdowns, winning his fourth Super Bowl ring. In addition to being one of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game, he is married to high profile supermodel Giselle Bundchen.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.