A U.S. district court judge overturned the NFL's controversial four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Thursday for his alleged role in the "Deflate-gate" scandal citing "several significant legal deficiencies."
The decision from Judge Richard M. Berman came after months of high-profile feuding between the league and its biggest star. The NFL suspended Brady in May after a league-led investigation determined that he was “generally aware” of a plot to take air out of footballs before this year’s AFC Championship Game, which is believed to make them easier to catch, and is a violation of NFL rules. Brady and his reps have always maintained his innocence of any wrongdoing and appealed the league's decision with the support of the NFL Players Association.
The ruling on Thursday means that Brady can take the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first week of the NFL regular season, which begins Sept. 10. This is the fifth time in the last year NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has lost a challenge in court against an NFL star. His decisions to indefinitely suspend Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson following domestic violence incidents were also overturned on appeal, and his punishments of defense players Greg Hardy and Ndamukong Suh were reduced as well. Brady's victory will be widely viewed as a significant blow to the stature of an already embattled commissioner. On Thursday, Goodell said he respectfully disagrees with Judge Berman's ruling and that the NFL will appeal the decision to reinstate Brady.
Goodell first doubled down on his initial punishment of Brady in July, citing the quarterback's failure to fully cooperate with the NFL's investigation of Deflate-gate (he admitted to 'destroying' his cell phone prior to a meeting with investigators) as a determining factor. Goodell, who has been criticized in the past for being too close to Patriots owner Robert Kraft, said Brady “engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football” in the July statement.
This statement brought about a strong rebuke from Kraft, who said he regretted accepting the NFL's punishment of Brady. “I was wrong to put my faith in the league,” Kraft said at a July press conference. “Tom Brady is a person of great integrity and is a great ambassador of the game both on and off the field,” he added.
The 7-month-long Deflate-gate drama has largely served as a distraction for a league still reeling from criticism of its handling of domestic violence and sexual assault allegations against its players. Although there are conflicting reports about efforts between Brady and the league to reach a settlement, it has long been perceived that the league was taking a big risk by taking one of its most valuable players to court.
Thursday's court ruling most likely will put an end to the Deflate-gate saga, but it will also renew speculation about the fate of Goodell, who has become a polarizing figure among both players and fans. Ironically, his decision to suspend Brady was well-received outside of the New England fanbase, so this reversal could at the very least call his leadership into question.
Matt Cantor, an antitrust attorney and partner at Constantine Cannon LLP in New York City, was very critical of Goodell's decision to act as judge and jury in the Brady case. "In my opinion no matter how this came out, I don't understand the logic of Goodell being the arbitrator here, he had nothing to win," Cantor told msnbc. Cantor believes that public relations appear to have been the prime motivation behind his "outcome determinative" decision-making process, instead of following the letter of the law. "In my view I think the judge's opinion will be upheld," Cantor added.
Cantor believes that it would be "a travesty of justice" if the NFL's appeal is expedited and that most likely, even if the league wins, the suspension wouldn't take place this season but the following one, well after the next Super Bowl is played. "This is not someone who is on death row who's going to the electric chair tomorrow," quipped Cantor.
Meanwhile, all signs point to Brady taking the field on opening day. The 38-year-old four-time Super Bowl champion has already made 96 consecutive starting appearances and will be on pace to become the first NFL quarterback in history to have two separate streaks over 100 consecutive regular season starts.