The Tom Brady decision makes sense—even if you hate Tom Brady

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Tom Brady and the Patriots are arguably more polarizing than any other individual or franchise in the NFL. Few people who have opinions about football are neutral when it comes to the team from Foxborough. Add in Brady’s unfaltering confidence (some might say arrogance), the destroyed cellphone, and the meme-worthy courtroom sketch, and the whole Deflate-gate drama has spun into a reality TV-type tale that would be at home on any number of cable networks.

The United States District Court opinion issued on September 3 overturning Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for his involvement in the deflated footballs during the AFC Championship Game against the Colts was a bold move. The whole idea behind arbitration is to have a streamlined process that keeps people out of court. Keeping that in mind, District Courts really, really don’t want to get involved and will only fail to enforce an award when something, in the Court’s opinion, has gone terribly wrong in the process.

So what went wrong with the NFL and Brady arbitration? Why did the court whistle Roger Goodell?

Basically, the court didn’t buy that Brady should have known that any equipment-related violations would result in a suspension. The court also believed that the Brady camp was put at a disadvantage by not having access to the interviews, documents, and notes that formed the basis of the Wells investigation—the damning report commissioned by the NFL—and by not being the able to cross-examine co-lead investigator Jeff Pash, NFL executive vice president and general counsel.

In the end—the end for now, anyway, since the NFL filed an appeal hours after the decision was filed—there were things that mattered to Judge Richard M. Berman and things that didn’t, regardless of fan, media, or even league reaction.

Things That Didn’t Matter:

  • The Patriots non-appeal of the $1,000,000 fine meted out to the team for the deflated footballs: It didn’t (and shouldn’t) have anything to do with the individual discipline for Brady, regardless of whether or not fans view it as an admission of guilt.
  • Brady’s destruction of his personal cell phone on the very day he was interviewed by the investigative team: This mattered a lot to Goodell in determining his “detrimental conduct” decision, but the court barely mentioned it, basically saying that even if that conduct was detrimental, Brady had no idea it could result in anything other than a fine.
  • Science or the Final Score: The court’s decision was based solely on the legal authority of arbitrators and the fairness of the arbitration. How weather or playing conditions affect the inflation or deflation of footballs makes for interesting science, but not relevant factors here. Also, while the court did take the time to point out (in a footnote) that Brady’s passing numbers were better in the second half with fully inflated footballs, that also wasn’t relevant.

Things That Did Matter:

  • Roger Goodell: Goodell, the NFL’s beleaguered Commissioner, looms large in all aspects of Deflate-gate. He, through NFL VP Troy Vincent, issued the original discipline. He refused to step aside when the decision was arbitrated, even though he had done so in the Bountygate and Adrian Peterson cases, two earlier, unrelated incidents that went to arbitration. The court points directly at Goodell in more than one spot in the decision, going so far as to call Goodell’s reliance on the “conduct detrimental” policy as “legally misplaced.” In the epic battle between Brady and Goodell’s egos, this round goes to Brady.
  • Rules (and Consequences): The court says that Tom Brady had no way of knowing that he could be suspended for fooling around with footballs. The Wells report only went so far as to say that Brady was “more likely than not” to be “at least generally aware” of the tampering. You don’t need instant replay to get a clear look at how uncertain that language is. It reads like the investigators were hedging their bets. The court clearly felt it was important that Brady (or any other player) know exactly what the punishment would be for any crime committed.

The bottom line is that Brady will play in the Patriots’ home opener even as the legal saga continues. Deflate-gate is going into overtime just when a new season—and likely a fresh set of player issues—kicks off.

Image courtesy of Steve Cukrov / 

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