National Football League (NFL) commissioner Roger Goodell has stated the league will appeal a federal judge’s ruling in the so-called ‘deflategate’ scandal that has dominated US headlines over the summer in a bid to protect the “integrity of the game”.
US District Judge Richard Berman’s decision in New York yesterday (Thursday) overturned the four-game suspension handed out to New England Patriots superstar quarterback, and NFL all-time great, Tom Brady, freeing him to return to the field for his team’s regular season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 10.
The NFL in May imposed the sanctions against Brady and the Patriots for violations of the Policy on Integrity of the Game and Enforcement of Competitive Rules relating to the use of under-inflated footballs in the 2014-15 AFC Championship game. For the violation of the playing rules and the failure to cooperate in the subsequent investigation, the Patriots were fined a record-equalling $1m (€898,000) and will forfeit the club’s first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft and the club’s fourth-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Brady was suspended without pay for the first four games of the 2015 regular season for “conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL.” In letters to the team and Brady, NFL executive vice-president of football operations Troy Vincent said that the NFL’s investigation found “substantial and credible evidence” that the quarterback knew team employees were deflating footballs, adding that he failed to cooperate with investigators. The investigation led by attorney Ted Wells found that Brady “was at least generally aware” of plans by two Patriots employees to prepare the balls to his preference, below the league-stipulated minimum of 12.5 pounds per square inch.
The game in question under the investigation, the 2014-15 AFC Championship encounter on January 18, saw the Patriots rout the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 on home soil at Gillette Stadium to advance to the Super Bowl. The Patriots then defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to claim the Super Bowl XLIX title.
The Patriots had said the franchise would “reluctantly” accept its punishment, but the overturning of Brady’s ban is a major setback for the league and Goodell, with its appeal likely to take months to resolve continuing the story into the forthcoming season.
Goodell said: “We will appeal today’s ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game. The commissioner’s responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle, and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end. While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season.”
Berman said the NFL’s initial ruling was marred by "several significant legal deficiencies," including a failure to notify Brady beforehand that his alleged conduct could be punished by suspension. “The court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs,” Berman wrote.
The Reuters news agency said the case has become a test for the league and the NFL Players’ Association (NFLPA) of how broadly to interpret Goodell’s authority to discipline players under the players’ collective bargaining agreement with the league.
Commenting on the decision, NFLPA president Eric Winston said: “I am happy for Tom, and it’s important to remember that when one player’s rights are upheld, it is a victory for all players. However, this whole ordeal has highlighted the need for players and owners to work together to make all policies fair and transparent for everyone in our game. I welcome an opportunity to have open and constructive dialogue with the league in the near future for how we can best accomplish that.”