Last week Patriots fans rejoiced as a federal judge ruled in favor of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and erased his four-game suspension. It was another blow to the top brass of the National Football League (NFL or League) who have been in hot water for their seemingly less than capable management of player infractions. This was a major win for Brady so I thought it would be a good idea to explain exactly how he was able to beat the NFL and its commissioner Roger Goodell. Before we get to meat of Brady’s win, let’s take a step back and figure out how we arrived here in the first place.
Brady’s suspension was a result of Deflategate, an investigation into allegations that Patriots employees, with the knowledge (and perhaps at the behest) of Tom Brady, deflated footballs below NFL guidelines to receive a competitive edge. The investigation led to Brady’s four-game suspension* which prompted Brady, through the NFL Players Association (NFLPA), to appeal under the League’s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). At the appeal hearing Goodell served as the arbitrator and (surprise, surprise) upheld the suspension.
Thankfully for Brady, Goodell doesn’t always have the final say. While the NFL is a private organization, the nature of its business dealings makes it subject to certain federal laws. Two such federal laws are the Labor Management Relations Act (LMRA) and the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA). Here, the LMRA establishes that if a player or the NFLPA believes the NFL violated the CBA, they have the right to sue in federal district court. The FAA establishes the various grounds under which a federal judge can vacate the decision of the NFL arbitrator. With federal law at their disposal, Brady forged ahead in his fight against the four-game suspension and sued the NFL in federal court on the grounds that the NFL violated the CBA and Goodell’s hearing was patently unfair. And now we’re ready to get to the good part, the decision.
Some may assume that the judge’s decision exonerated Brady from any wrongdoing. To the contrary, Judge Berman’s decision to vacate the suspension had nothing to do with Brady’s actual guilt or innocence. Instead, Brady beat the NFL because Goodell failed to give Brady the proper notice and opportunity to defend himself against his accusers. It’s pretty entertaining the way Judge Berman shreds through the NFL, so I encourage you to read the decision yourself, but since you came here for the quick and dirty version, here it goes.
Judge Berman based his decision on following three issues:
- 1. Inadequate Notice of Discipline and Misconduct
According to Goodell and the investigation, Brady was disciplined for being generally aware of the Patriots employees’ misconduct and for failing to cooperate with investigators. Judge Berman determined that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for such behavior. You see, you can’t really penalize a person for an act where that person was never notified that such an act was wrong or where there were no established penalties for committing such an act. There exists no NFL policy or precedent that establishes that a person can be disciplined for having a general awareness of another’s alleged misconduct or that football deflation and non-cooperation can be penalized in the same way as steroid usage. At no time before had a player been held responsible for maybe knowing what someone else was doing or had equipment tampering and non-cooperation been disciplined with anything but a warning or fine. Goodell contrived a new infraction and ignored NFL policies to hand down discipline that was unquestionably more severe than the CBA envisioned.
- 2. Improper Denial of the Opportunity to Examine Designated Co-Lead Investigator
Jeff Pash, General Counsel of the NFL, was the co-lead investigator on the supposedly independent Deflategate Investigation. Brady had requested that Pash testify at the appeal hearing, but Goodell denied that request. Because the right to cross-examine adversarial witnesses is fundamental to judicial procedure and is established precedent within the NFL, Judge Berman determined that Goodell’s refusal was fundamentally unfair and a violation of federal law. The refusal, which had no justifiable basis, prevented Brady from examining the true nature of the investigation and questioning one of his primary investigators.
- 3. Improper Denial of Equal Access to Investigative Files
Goodell denied Brady’s request for access to documents created during the investigation done by Pash and the law firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkin, Warton & Garrison. One problem with denying Brady the documents was that after conducting the investigation, Paul Weiss went on to represent the NFL in the appeal hearing. So the NFL had access to investigative notes but Brady did not. Judge Berman ruled that Goodell’s failure to ensure that both parties had access to the same information was unacceptable and prejudicial to Brady. It essentially prevented Brady from properly defending himself.
In retrospect, Brady didn’t really have to beat Goodell and the NFL. They defeated themselves. Goodell’s questionable decision-making and novel rules were the sole reasons that the suspension was vacated. At the end of day, we’re actually no closer to guilt or innocence and the NFL’s disciplinary arm still remains unreliable. I guess we’ll have to wait for the next player infraction to see if the NFL will get it right.
*In addition to Brady’s suspension the League fined the Patriots $1,000,000, indefinitely suspended the involved personnel, and made the Patriots forfeit their first-round draft pick in the 2016 draft and fourth-round pick in the 2017 draft.