Thursday’s victory by Tom Brady over the NFL in federal court produced one very obvious winner, but the ripple effect of DeflateGate touched on a plenty of parties beyond Brady and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell since it began in January. With two sides so deeply entrenched over this issue, and with so many league-wide issues wrapped up in the DeflateGate saga, Judge Richard M. Berman’s decision to nullify the four-game suspension leveled at the Patriots quarterback carried significant consequences. A quick look at some of those that had the most at stake and how they emerged in the wake of the ruling:
Tom Brady and the Patriots
First and foremost come the obvious winners, who now know Brady will start in next Thursday’s NFL season opener against the Steelers. After a preseason of awkward news conferences and media questions, they’re on to Pittsburgh.
Considering how much Goodell appeared to overreach with his four-game suspension, given the dearth of hard evidence around Brady’s involvement, a victory in court would have no doubt emboldened an already heavy-handed commissioner to dole out severe punishments for any transgression. Instead, the NFL will have to reconsider its discipline process and its penalties or risk another public defeat in court. Three times in the past year, the league has lost court cases over the issue of excessive player discipline. The players association clearly now has leverage to rework the league’s discipline structure in the next round of collective bargaining talks. Of course, the current CBA runs through 2021, so … yeah.
The lawyer was one of the very few voices to believe Brady was going to win this court case, stating clearly to the Post’s Adam Kilgore earlier this week that Brady losing the case was “not going to happen.”
While many other legal experts steadfastly believed precedent would lead Berman to rule in favor of the league, Milstein never wavered. Maybe he guessed, but he was right.
At the center of this case was the issue of the NFL commissioner’s power and his ability to protect the league’s interest. Some owners said they wanted him to show strength against the Patriots and his punishment showed precisely that. With Thursday’s defeat, that strength is now viewed as hubris.
Throughout the DeflateGate discipline process, Goodell adopted an inflexible stance and refused to back down from the stiff penalties he leveled at the Patriots and Brady. He had a reason for confidence, with a firm belief the NFL would prevail in court. And then Judge Berman essentially scoffed at him.
The ruling vacated the penalty principally for failures in the NFL’s process, stating Goodell essentially “dispense[d] his own brand of industrial justice.” Berman also criticized the league’s comparison of ball deflation to steroid use, which carries a similar four-game suspension.
The decision even included quotes around the word “independent,” seemingly mocking its use when referencing league-appointed DeflateGate investigator Ted Wells, whom the NFLPA viewed essentially as a biased party sympathetic to the league. It all adds up to an insult on top of the injury to Goodell’s power as commissioner. Berman’s decision makes it appear Goodell has been making up rules as he’s gone the past two years, rather than properly grounding his actions in the collective bargaining agreement. After a season of embarrassments by players off the field, this loss drops Goodell’s public perception to a new low.
The ruling is a stunning blow to the league, which handpicked the court by filing a lawsuit to have the decision affirmed in New York before Brady and the NFLPA could file in Minnesota, traditionally a more player-friendly judicial circuit. In the past, judges have been loathe to rule against decisions that have been handed out under a collective bargaining agreement, such as Brady’s suspension. But Brady overcame both of those factors, giving the NFL its third recent legal defeat over a matter of player discipline.
In the wake of an awful season that included Ray Rice punching his fiancee on video and Adrian Peterson lashing his child, the NFL responded with a hard stance on player discipline and pushed the envelope with the harsh penalties it doled out. The ruling in Brady’s case — and in the court cases of Rice and Peterson — shows that the league seems to have been overreaching as it has tried to mete out justice. It also offers incentive to other players to try their luck in the courtroom if they lose their appeal. Already, ESPN reports that suspended Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy is considering taking the NFL to court over his four-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league following a 2014 domestic violence incident.
The Steelers, Bills, Jaguars and Cowboys
Beyond league politics, there is a very practical matter that applies to the actual game of football. We all remember football, don’t we? Simply put, when the 2015 season gets underway, who would you rather face, Tom Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo? These four teams will now have to face a four-time Super Bowl winner instead of his still-wet-behind-the-ears backup.
Tom Brady’s legacy
Berman’s ruling was a vindication to a degree, but it pertained solely to the NFL’s handling of the player discipline process. It did not rule that Brady had no part in the deflation of the footballs in the AFC championship game.
While the Wells investigation didn’t find any hard evidence, there was plenty of circumstantial evidence that led him to conclude Brady was “generally aware” of the deflations. Brady’s destruction of his cell phone didn’t help his case either, and both current and former players have repeatedly expressed the belief that any NFL quarterback would have to know about any air pressure issues in their preferred and personally prepared balls.
That’s all more than enough ammo for critics to continue to speculate about his role in all of this and fixate on the stain of the incident instead of the shine of four Super Bowl rings.
Anyone who just wants DeflateGate to go away
The NFL announced Thursday it will appeal Berman’s decision, pushing the finish line for this saga further into the future. How can a matter that revolves around a lack of air pressure seemingly never lose steam?