Tom Brady won big. Roger Goodell lost bigger.
The New England Patriots will have a full complement of their star quarterback this season after a federal court ruling Thursday overturned Brady’s four-game “Deflategate” suspension. As big as Brady’s victory is, though, the defeat is greater for Goodell, the beleaguered NFL commissioner, because his latest public relations embarrassment calls into question his ultimate power as the final arbiter for his league.
That sound you hear, in the case of underinflated footballs, might be the air slowly seeping from Goodell’s authority.
The case is not over, of course. Not for nothing does the legal system move with the alacrity of a great tortoise. The league immediately filed an appeal Thursday to the U.S. Appeals Court’s Second Circuit.
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“Right here, right now, Goodell has been rocked. The smelling salts are out,” as legal expert Peter Carfagna said Thursday, deploying a boxing analogy. “But he and his lawyers can still come off the ropes.”
The appeals process could take “months, if not years,” though, said Carfagna, co-director of the University of Miami Law School’s sports-law curriculum. That means, Brady, 38, has won at least for the foreseeable future. The NFL Week 1 betting line saw the Patriots bounce from 3- to 6 1/2-point favorites Thursday with the news suggesting the reigning Super Bowl MVP would start Sept. 10 vs. Pittsburgh to open the season.
Meantime, Jimmy Garoppolo, we hardly knew ye. (He was the little-known backup QB who would have started during Brady’s suspension).
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman makes a bit steeper the Miami Dolphins’ climb to overtake nemesis New England in the AFC East, although Brady’s suspension did not include either of the games against Miami.
The ruling surprised Carfagna and many other courtroom mavens, who figured the federal court would send the case back to arbitration — as the court did in the Adrian Peterson matter last year — or push harder for a settlement.
“Shock and awe,” Carfagna described his reaction Thursday. “It’s like Alice in Wonderland. The further you go, it gets curiouser and curiouser.”
Instead of upholding Goodell’s punishment or deferring the case back to arbitration, the court cited “significant legal deficiencies” in Goodell’s actions, and excoriated the commissioner for dispensing “his own brand of industrial justice.”
The ruling rocked the interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement’s Article 46, which gives the commissioner broad powers as final arbiter in meting out punishment.
The NFL Players Association crowed victory Thursday, with executive director DeMaurice Smith saying the CBA “does not grant this commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading.”
The NFL-commissioned Wells Report did not cite any hard evidence that Brady directed or had knowledge of the slight underinflating of footballs (a perceived advantage) used by the Pats in last season’s AFC Championship Game.
When Brady appealed the resulting four-game suspension, Goodell himself heard the appeal and, in effect, ruled in his own favor.
The federal court in turn essentially ruled that the NFL did not have a strong enough case against Brady to merit a four-game suspension, or a fair enough appeal proceeding.
Will this ruling serve to weaken the commissioner’s power?
“For sure,” Carfagna said. “That’s why the NFL would feel compelled to appeal.”
Football fans are not waiting for the appeals process to play out to argue whether Thursday’s ruling is fair or means Brady got away with cheating. In games, who wins is clear-cut. In court, who wins sometimes is open to debate.
I would suggest two things. First, the NFL did not prove to a legal standard — which is a higher standard than Ted Wells used in his report — that Brady was guilty. That’s on the NFL, not on Brady. Second, even if Brady was involved, it strikes us the crime here was a misdemeanor – almost laughably minor especially in the context of criminal outrages such as the league endured with Ray Rice last year.
Brady’s legacy will be as a four-time Super Bowl champion who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The “Deflategate” controversy, even if seen as a blemish on his résumé, will be a minor matter meriting an historical mention but no undue weight.