Just when New England Patriots fans thought the whole "Deflate-gate" mess was behind them, a federal appeals court has ruled: Not so fast.
The NFL's controversial four-game suspension of the team's star quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in illegally changing the air pressure in game balls prior to 2015's AFC Championship game is now being upheld, following an appeal from the league.
Brady had previously been victorious in a district court this past fall when he challenged the league's May decision, which came following an internal investigation that determined the four-time Super Bowl winner was "generally aware" of a conspiracy to gain an unfair advantage. (Under-inflated balls are considered to be easier to grip and catch.) Brady has always insisted that he had no knowledge of and never participated in any form of cheating, and he has enjoyed the support of the NFL Players Association, as well as Patriots ownership.
This appeals court ruling will now re-open the controversy all over again, likely reigniting debates about alleged disciplinary overreach from the NFL's Commissioner Roger Goodell.
"We hold that the Commissioner properly exercised his broad discretion under the collective bargaining agreement and that his procedural rulings were properly grounded in that agreement and did not deprive Brady of fundamental fairness," read the court's 2-1 decision, according to ESPN.
Second Circuit Court Chief Judge Robert Katzmann was the lone dissenter. "I am troubled by the Commissioner's decision to uphold the unprecedented four-game suspension," he wrote. "The Commissioner failed to even consider a highly relevant alternative penalty."
Under previously negotiated rules, the commissioner currently has unilateral powers to punish players for on and off-the-field infractions. Goodell has been widely criticized for incongruous and disproportionate punishments in the past. After stirring controversy with an initial two-game suspension of former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for a domestic violence incident in 2014 with his then-fiancee (which was caught on camera), Goodell and the league revised their disciplinary policies. His suspensions of Rice, and later Adrian Peterson for a separate domestic violence incident, were both overturned on appeal.
Goodell has stood by all of his decisions, including his Brady ruling, which was inspired in part by the quarterback's destruction of a cell phone that contained thousands of text messages that might have pertinent to the NFL's investigation.
Still, when Brady was reinstated last year, many sports fans believed the entire "Deflate-gate" episode was finished once and for all.
“The ramifications of the Second Circuit’s decision are far-reaching. It reinforces the commissioner’s authority to discipline players in a far-reaching manner as set forth in the collective bargaining agreement. The previous decision was shocking in that it ran counter to a long-established federal policy in which the courts defer to the results of private arbitration processes — particularly those that are the result of collective bargaining," Nellie Drew, a sports law professor at the University at Buffalo, told MSNBC on Monday. “The decision also puts significant pressure upon the NFLPA to wrest away some of the commissioner’s broad authority over disciplinary issues in the next round of collective bargaining.”
The league is currently in the midst of negotiating reduced disciplinary powers for Goodell, in the wake of all the scandals. “We’ve been talking about changes to the personal conduct policy since October and have traded proposals,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith told The Wall Street Journal last month. “We looked at the league’s proposal for neutral arbitration. There is a common ground for us to get something done.”
Last year, the drama that proceeded the season didn't appear to take a toll on Brady and the Patriots. Although the team was rocked by injuries, they made it all the way to the AFC Championship Game for the second year in a row only to succumb to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos' suffocating defense.
Ironically, Brady has mostly been in the headlines recently for his high-profile friendship and potential political flirtation with GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump. When spotted with Trump campaign paraphernalia last year, Brady praised the real estate mogul profusely but stopped short of endorsing his campaign. After initially claiming to have Brady's support, Trump, an avid football fan whose lamented that the game has become too "soft" recently, has said he's told the quarterback not to endorse him.
“He’s got sponsors, he’s got all of his different things that he has to do. And I told him not to,” Trump reportedly told a Boston radio station in February. On Monday, at a campaign rally in Warwick, Rhode Island, the candidate began his remarks by saying: "Leave Tom Brady alone."
"He's a great guy ... it's enough!" he added.
Now, Brady has bigger problems on his hands than any partisan squabbling. The 38-year-old will likely miss scheduled games against the Arizona Cardinals and Houston Texas, as well as match-op against divisional opponents, the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins. That is of course, unless he chooses to appeal again. The ball is back in his court — but he may not want to get his hopes up.
“From a legal perspective, Tom Brady is all but done. Can this decision be appealed? Sure. They can request an en banc hearing before the Second Circuit or even seek review in the Supreme Court. But it is highly, highly unlikely that such an appeal would be entertained by either court," Drew said. “The appeals court holds tremendous weight, so the odds are stacked against Brady and the union at this point.”