Judge Richard M. Berman’s decision to vacate Tom Brady’s four-game suspension is a stunning victory for the New England Patriots quarterback and a stinging blow to the National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Think of the NFL as the Roman Empire of sports in America and Goodell as Caesar. Magnificent stadia dot the landscape from coast to coast, and every week from September to January gladiators clash to the cheers of hundreds of thousands of loyal subjects.
Now, think of Brady as The Gladiator, one of the best ever, the face of the NFL of the 2000s, Super Bowl champion and MVP. That he is strikingly handsome, married to a beautiful woman and father to a young family only enhances his aura. When he smiles and says he did nothing wrong, we believe him, right?
With Berman’s ruling Thursday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, the gladiator defeated the emperor, at least in this round. Now Brady can look forward to starting the season next week against Pittsburgh – the preseason ends Thursday night in Foxboro against the New York Giants – without a cloud of suspicion hovering overhead.
Or can he? Berman’s 40-page ruling did not exonerate Brady of the allegation that “it was more probable than not that Brady was at least generally aware” that the game balls for the AFC Championship last January had been tampered with. Berman vacated the suspension because of “several significant legal deficiencies.” He wrote that the NFL failed to provide Brady notice that he could be suspended for four games for “general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs, and non-cooperation with the ensuing investigation.” Brady also had no knowledge that his discipline would be the same as for a first-time violation of the NFL policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs, Berman wrote, or that his failure to cooperate fully with the league’s investigation could result in his being disciplined.
This is a case of labor law, a case involving the interpretation and execution of the collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and its players union. Citing examples of questionable approach, Berman concluded that Goodell and his team fumbled the ball.
This game is not over. The NFL is appealing Berman’s finding. How far it will press its case is a good question. According to media reports this summer, owners worried that Deflategate dragged on too long. Berman’s decision mentioned that the league’s investigation had cost in excess of $3 million. That’s real money, even to a league that reaps billions.
How long Goodell remains as commissioner is another good question. He fumbled the domestic abuse cases of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson last year. His leadership in concussion cases has been lackluster. His ruling in the 2012 New Orleans Saints Bountygate controversy was overturned. His attempt to nail Brady smacks of a desperate desire to show he is still in charge.
And I wonder how Patriots owner Robert Kraft really feels in the wake of Berman’s decision. Remember how critical he was of the initial allegations and the Wells report and the penalties of $1 million and loss of a first-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017? And how he finally acquiesced and paid the fine. I’ll bet he has second thoughts, although The New York Times reports that he will not dispute the fine or the loss of draft picks.
Berman’s ruling will no doubt open the door to other players who have been suspended, but there’s no guarantee that the NFL Players Association will appeal every decision. Besides, drug cases have nothing in common with Deflategate. Proof in those cases is usually conclusive. Players failed drug tests.
The Berman decision will also charge the emotions of those who see race around every corner. Brady, they are already commenting on news stories, is just another white guy who beat the system. Sure he is.
I have said all along that Brady has more on his mind on game day than the air pressure in every football that leaves the officials room after testing. I have suggested that at some point in his career, Brady might have mentioned to the Patriots equipment guys that he prefers a soft football. That doesn’t mean a ball inflated below the minimum and certainly doesn’t mean a ball deflated after testing.
And let’s not forget that in that AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, Brady had better passing stats in the second half, when he was throwing a properly inflated ball, than he did in the first half, when he handled balls allegedly deflated to his liking. Final score, 45-7.