NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell had tried to bench Brady for the first four games of the upcoming season after a league investigation found that the QB was “generally aware” of ball tampering back in January.
With the Patriots set to kick off their next season on Sept. 19, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman had promised to rule swiftly.
The judge’s scathing decision Thursday echoes his criticism of Goodell at a hearing for calling steroids the “closest parallel” to ball tampering.
A policy about steroid use “cannot, as a matter of law, serve as adequate notice of discipline to Brady,” the 40-page ruling states.
“It also cannot reasonably be used as a comparator for Brady’s four-game suspension for alleged ball deflation by others in the first half of the AFC Championship Game and for non-cooperation in the ensuing investigation,” Berman added.
Nothing about the “testing procedures” or other principles of the steroid policy have “anything to do with Brady’s conduct and/or his discipline,” the ruling states.
“The court is unable to perceive ‘notice’ of discipline, or any comparability between a violation of the steroid policy and a ‘general awareness’ of the inappropriate activities of others, or even involvement in a scheme by others to deflate game balls on January 18, 2015, and noncooperation in a football deflation investigation,” Berman wrote.
Berman put the next section of his ruling in bold letters.
“The court finds that no player alleged or found to have had a general awareness of the inappropriate ball deflation activities of others or who allegedly schemed with others to let air out of footballs in a championship game and also had not cooperated in an ensuing investigation, reasonably could be on notice that their discipline would (or should) be the same as applied to a player who violated the NFL Policy on Anabolic Steroids and Related Substances. Brady had no such notice.”
It was during halftime in an AFC championship matchup between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 18, 2015, when referees determined that Brady had been using balls deflated below minimum standards.
Undermining the claim that the underinflated footballs gave Brady a competitive advantage, the QB’s passes connected more frequently during the second half when using balls pumped up to the proper pressure.
After the quarterback led his team to a 45-7 win in that game, the Patriots went on to beat the Seattle Seahawks at Super Bowl XLIX.
Though Goodell’s investigator had acknowledged that “there is less direct evidence linking Brady to tampering activities,” the league’s report called it “unlikely that an equipment assistant and a locker room attendant would deflate game balls without Brady’s knowledge and approval.”
Brady has long blamed the deflated balls on the “ideal gas law,” a principle of physics discovered in the 19th century establishing a relationship between that the temperature of a gas and its pressure.
With a quip about “ninth grade chemistry,” Jeffrey Kessler, the attorney for the player’s union, said at a hearing last month that the principle showed that transferring the ball from a warm locker room to a cold field could explain deflation.
The NFL’s lawyer Daniel Nash, from the firm Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, replied at the time that the league’s expert from Princeton disagreed with the elementary assessment.
Judge Berman declined to wade into the facts but blasted the league for failing to notify Brady about the punishment he might face for supposed involvement in equipment tampering.
NFL policies for equipment violations give players no notice of suspensions, only of fines, according to the ruling.
Berman called “a player’s right to notice is at the heart of the CBA and, for that matter, of our criminal and civil justice systems.”
Goodell has caught heat from the courts before for holding players to a standard that NFL policies do not spell out.
In the earlier case, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson found himself on the outs with the league after reports emerged that he had used a “switch” from a tree to discipline his 4-year-old son. Goodell suspended Peterson after the player pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor child-abuse charge, but U.S. District Judge David Doty agreed with the players’ union in February that the league had “simply disregarded the law of the shop” in retroactively applying its new Personal Conduct Policy to Peterson.
Berman slammed Goodell for disregarding the lesson from the Peterson debacle.
One justification Goodell made for the four-game suspension of Brady focused on the quarterback’s refusal to turn his cellphone over to NFL investigators.
Brady later destroyed the phone. He insists that his intention was to protect his privacy as a celebrity, but Goodell claims that the quarterback had been trying to hide an incriminating text-message exchange with Patriots attendants John Jastremski and Jim McNally.
Since the NFL received all of Brady’s text messages from third parties during the league’s investigation, players’ union attorney Kessler told the court last month that this controversy was “the most overblown issue in the history of my 40 years of litigation.”
Judge Berman found Thursday that, even if the quarterback obstructed the probe, there was no precedent for suspending him over such conduct.
Goodell’s precedessor – former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue – said in a different case that there was “no evidence of a record of past suspension purely on obstructing a league investigation,” the ruling notes.
“Because there was no notice of a four-game suspension in the circumstances presented here, Commissioner Goodell may be said to have ‘dispense[d] his own brand of industrial justice,'” Berman wrote.
The judge also ripped the league for the “fundamentally unfair” process of the hearings.
In particular, the NFL refused to let Brady’s attorney examine one of the player’s chief accusers Jeff Pash, who co-led the investigation with Theodore Wells, a partner at one of the league’s regular outside law firms, Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison.
“Given Mr. Pash’s very senior position in the NFL, his role as executive vice president and general counsel, and his designation as co-lead investigator with Ted Wells, it is logical that he would have valuable insight into the course and outcome of the Investigation and into the drafting and content of the Wells Report,” the opinion says.
Berman found that the league also stacked the deck against Brady by denying him equal access to investigative files.
The NFL and the players’ union did not immediately respond to a request for comment.