Tom Brady and the players’ union are headed to a legal clash with the NFL over DeflateGate after Commissioner Roger Goodell rejected Brady’s appeal Tuesday and upheld the four-game suspension of the New England Patriots quarterback and reigning Super Bowl MVP.
Brady gave the union his approval later Tuesday for a lawsuit to be filed on his behalf, according to a person familiar with the situation. Another person connected to the case had said earlier that the union was “ready to go once he [Brady] gives the go-ahead.”
Goodell kept the suspension intact after hearing Brady’s appeal, and revealed Tuesday the league had learned that Brady had directed that his cell phone be destroyed shortly before meeting with the NFL’s investigators in March.
“The evidence fully supports my findings that (I) Mr. Brady participated in a scheme to tamper with the game balls after they had been approved by the game officials for use in the AFC Championship Game and (2) Mr. Brady willfully obstructed the investigation by, among other things, affirmatively arranging for destruction of his cellphone knowing that it contained potentially relevant information that had been requested by the investigators,” Goodell wrote in his ruling. “All of this indisputably constitutes conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
Goodell wrote that he “entered into the appeal process open to reevaluating my assessment of Mr. Brady’s conduct and the associated discipline.”
But he concluded: “Notwithstanding my enormous respect for his accomplishments on the field and for his contributions and role in the community, I find that, with respect to the game balls used in the AFC Championship Game and the subsequent investigation, Mr. Brady engaged in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.”
Brady’s agent, Don Yee, criticized Goodell’s ruling and the NFL appeal process in a strongly worded written statement. Yee said Goodell’s decision “is deeply disappointing, but not surprising because the appeal process was thoroughly lacking in procedural fairness. … The appeal process was a sham, resulting in the Commissioner rubber-stamping his own decision.”
Yee said that Brady and his representatives “presented the Commissioner with an unprecedented amount of electronic data, all of which is incontrovertible. I do not think that any private citizen would have agreed to provide anyone with the amount of information that Tom was willing to reveal to the Commissioner. Tom was completely transparent. All of the electronic information was ignored; we don’t know why. The extent to which Tom opened up his private life to the Commissioner will become clear in the coming days.”
Said Yee: “The Commissioner’s decision and discipline has no precedent in all of NFL history. His decision alters the competitive balance of the upcoming season. The decision is wrong and has no basis, and it diminishes the integrity of the game.”
The union signaled its intention to file a lawsuit on Brady’s behalf when it said in a written statement issued later Tuesday: “The NFLPA will appeal this outrageous decision on behalf of Tom Brady.”
The NFLPA’s written statement cited the league’s lack of an equipment-tampering policy applying to players; the lack of notice to players that they could be disciplined for such infractions; the NFL’s use of a standard that Brady was generally aware of the under-inflation of footballs; and the lack at the time of league-wide procedures to test the air pressure in footballs used in games.
The union said the league “violated the plain meaning of the collective bargaining agreement” and added: “The fact that the NFL would resort to basing a suspension on a smoke screen of irrelevant text messages instead of admitting that they have all of the phone records they asked for is a new low, even for them, but it does nothing to correct their errors.”
The Patriots said in a written statement that they were “extremely disappointed” by Goodell’s ruling.
“We cannot comprehend the league’s position in this matter,” the team’s statement said. “Most would agree that the penalties levied originally were excessive and unprecedented, especially in light of the fact that the league has no hard evidence of wrongdoing. We continue to unequivocally believe in and support Tom Brady. We also believe that the laws of science continue to underscore the folly of this entire ordeal. Given all of this, it is incomprehensible as to why the league is attempting to destroy the reputation of one of its greatest players and representatives.”
The Patriots previously decided not to appeal their $1 million fine and loss of first- and fourth-round draft choices.
People familiar with the case expect the union’s lawsuit on Brady’s behalf to be filed either in Massachusetts or in Minnesota. The league and union have a long history in federal court in Minneapolis. The NFLPA could seek an injunction that would restore Brady’s eligibility to play while the case proceeds in court.
The NFL made the first legal move Tuesday, filing a case in New York to attempt to have the suspension affirmed.
This will be the latest in a string of legal clashes between the league and union over disciplinary measures imposed by the NFL on players.
Ray Rice’s indefinite suspension was overturned by Barbara S. Jones, a former judge appointed by Goodell to hear Rice’s appeal. The union went to federal court in Minnesota after Adrian Peterson’s appeal of his league-imposed suspension was upheld by arbitrator Harold Henderson. The NFL prevailed in front of U.S. District Judge David S. Doty, who sent the case back to the league for further proceedings under the collective bargaining agreement. The league reinstated Peterson, basically sticking to the timetable it already had established for consideration of that move, and the running back now is in training camp with the Minnesota Vikings.
But those were disciplinary measures taken under the personal conduct policy, and the union could argue that the NFL was retroactively — and improperly — applying standards under that policy that were not in place when the players’ conduct occurred. The league modified its disciplinary guidelines for domestic violence cases last summer.
The union won’t have that legal argument available for Brady. But those connected to the case on the players’ side of the sport say they believe Brady and the union have a strong case and an excellent chance of winning.
The NFLPA can argue that the finding by NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells that Brady probably was at least generally aware of a football-deflation scheme is not legally sufficient for the discipline that was imposed. It can argue that the sport’s guidelines for handling footballs apply to teams, not to players, and that Brady was given an arbitrary punishment without a precedent. The union can attack the league’s approach to explaining the science related to the possible impact of weather conditions on football deflation.
The league and union explored the possibility of a negotiated settlement of Brady’s appeal that would have kept the two sides out of court, according to people familiar with the case. But it did not appear that much progress was made. The union did not appear willing to agree to a suspension of any length for Brady, and the league maintained that a significant suspension was necessary.
There was strong support by many within the league for Goodell to keep the suspension intact.
“I think he has to stay with the same thing,” a high-ranking official with one NFL team said last week.
The Patriots report to their training camp Wednesday. Brady’s second-year backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, would be in line to open the regular season as the team’s starter at quarterback if Brady’s suspension is kept intact and he remains ineligible to play. Garoppolo was a second-round draft choice by the Patriots last year and had success in limited playing time as a rookie, completing 19 of 27 passes for 182 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions last season.
The Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL’s season-opening game Sept. 10.