On Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman overturned New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension imposed by the NFL—and which Commissioner Roger Goodell later upheld—stemming from the “Deflategate” controversy. In his ruling, which clears the way for Brady to play in the Patriots’ season opener next week, Berman criticized Goodell for dispensing “his own brand of industrial justice.”
Roger Abrams, the Richardson Professor of Law at Northeastern University, is an expert on sports and labor law. Here, he explains the legal grounds for Berman’s ruling and what the decision means for the NFL commissioner.
Once this case entered Berman’s court, the focus shifted from debating Brady’s guilt or innocence to process, fairness, and the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement. What were the primary legal grounds upon which Berman based his ruling?
Judge Berman relied on basic concepts of fundamental fairness in vacating the commissioner’s ruling. Brady was not given adequate notice of the potential for discipline for alleged equipment violations or for a failure to fully cooperate in an investigation. His attorneys were denied the opportunity to cross-examine one of the lead investigators into the alleged violations. Finally, he was denied equal access to investigatory files. No independent and neutral labor arbitrator would have committed such egregious procedural errors.
The NFL quickly announced it would appeal. What can we expect from the appeal process?
The NFL is unlikely to prevail on appeal, assuming it actually goes ahead and processes an appeal. Judge Berman carefully grounded his decision in well-established law and avoided deciding other questions raised, such as whether the commissioner had prejudged the case. Remember that if any one of the grounds relied upon by Judge Berman has merit, the case must be affirmed.
In a news@Northeastern Q&A on July 29, you predicted that Goodell’s decision to uphold Brady’s four-game suspension upon appeal “will be recognized someday as the beginning of the end of his flawed tenure.” What are the implications of Thursday’s ruling for both Goodell and the NFL?
I suspect that some NFL team owners will seek to challenge the NFL’s leadership, while others will encourage Goodell to continue to fight this battle against Tom Brady and the Patriots. No commissioner serves forever, however. I would hope that the court’s decision will result in improved decision-making by the NFL when it comes to player discipline. This case is the product of self-inflicted wounds by the NFL that easily could have been avoided.