News 4th September 2015

Judge overturns footballer Tom Brady’s suspension

A US District Judge has a overturned a four-game suspension imposed on National Football League (NFL) player Tom Brady by the NFL’s commissioner Roger Goodell. In May this year the NFL suspended the New England Patriot’s quarterback Tom Brady for the first four games of the 2015 football season after a report commissioned by the NFL (the ‘Wells Report’) found that it was ‘more probable than not’ that Brady had conspired to deflate footballs in an AFC Championship Game (as reported by the Sports Integrity Initiative). Deflated footballs are allegedly easier to grip and throw, therefore giving a quarterback an unfair advantage during a game.

However in yesterday’s judgment, U.S. District Judge Richard M Berman decided to ‘vacate’ the NFL’s original decision, finding that the penalty handed to Brady suffered from ‘several significant legal deficiencies.’ The court criticised commissioner Goodell for his actions, arguing that he went too far in his punishment of Brady, effectively dispensing ‘his own brand of industrial justice.’

The Federal District Court of Manhattan did not make a ruling on whether Brady had conspired to deflate footballs – allegations which Brady continues to deny – stating that the ‘arbitrator’s factual findings are generally not open to judicial challenge, and we accept the facts as the arbitrator found them’. However the Court argued that the sanctions imposed on Brady should nevertheless be vacated as they were premised upon several significant legal deficiencies.

These included the ‘inadequate notice to Brady of both his potential discipline (four-game suspension) and his alleged misconduct’, the ‘denial of the opportunity for Brady to examine one of two lead investigators’ and the ‘denial of equal access to investigative files, including interview notes.’ The court found that Brady had no notice of his four-game suspension and that Goodell’s decision to ‘apply the same discipline on Brady as the NFL metes out for steroid use’ to be arbitrary and irrelevant. The court also found that Brady had no notice of any discernible infraction and that Brady had notice only of fines, not suspensions, for player equipment violations designed to gain a competitive advantage.

Brady originally appealed the NFL’s original suspension imposed on him but the NFL, after a hearing which lasted more than ten hours on 23 June, decided to uphold their original decision. In a statement in July, Goodell said that important new information had been disclosed by Brady and his representatives in connection with the appeal hearing. This, the Commissioner said, had led him to conclude that ‘Brady was aware of, and took steps to support‎, the actions of other team employees to deflate game footballs below the levels called for by the NFL’s Official Playing Rules.’ Brady and his team, the New England Patriots, both confirmed their ‘disappointment’ at the decision at the time and the NFL Players’ Association said that it would ‘appeal this outrageous decision on behalf of Tom Brady.’

Alongside Brady’s suspension, the Patriots, for the ‘violation of the playing rules and the failure to cooperate in the subsequent investigation’, were fined $1 million and ordered to forfeit the club’s first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft and fourth-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. Robert Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, said in May that he would not dispute these sanctions; the Patriots further fired two backroom employees whom the NFL implicated in the deflation of the game balls.

In response to the Federal Court’s ruling, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) issued a statement saying that the ‘decision should prove, once and for all, that our Collective Bargaining Agreement [between the NFL and the players union] does not grant this Commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading.’ In his judgment, Berman said that a player’s right to notice was ‘at the heart’ of the collective bargaining agreement ‘and, for that matter, of our criminal and civil justice systems.’

The NFLPA statement continued that, ‘We are happy for the victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans. This court’s decision to overturn the NFL Commissioner again should signal to every NFL owner that collective bargaining is better than legal losses. Collective bargaining is a much better process that will lead to far better results.’

In a statement from Commissioner Goodell however, the NFL responded that it was ‘grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today’s decision.’ The NFL confirmed that it would appeal the ruling ‘in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game.’

Berman’s decision frees Brady to play in the Patriots first match of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers on 10 September.

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