Our long national nightmare is over – at least until the NFL's appeal is heard.
On Thursday, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman overturned Tom Brady's league-mandated four-game suspension for his supposed role in the "Deflategate" scandal, bringing yet another headline-clogging controversy to a close and offering up a sharp rebuke of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's authority. Barring the results of an appeal by the league, that is.
And of course the NFL is appealing the ruling; ever since the Wells Report was released in May, Goodell has show a willingness to go to the ends of the earth in his nebulous defense of the NFL's "integrity," upholding Brady's suspension upon appeal – thanks to "new evidence" in the form of a destroyed cellphone – then refusing to budge when he and the league's most popular player met in Berman's court last month. In doing so, he only prolonged the inevitable (the league had already lost similar appeals filed in District Courts by Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice) and continued to drag the NFL's name through the mud. And after months of posturing and legal wrangling, it only took a single moment in federal court to show that the commissioner's power has been nothing but a mirage.
Berman's ruling ensures that Brady will be starting for the defending Super Bowl champions in next Thursday's NFL kickoff against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but what's interesting bout his decision that that, ultimately, it doesn't have anything to do with the central issue in the case – whether or not Brady cheated. The only reason he'll be under center next week is because Goodell and the NFL mishandled their investigation and overstepped their authority. Brady may or may not have been aware that Patriots personnel tampered with footballs, but this ruling indicates that Goodell absolutely tampered with Brady's ability to defend himself.
In his decision, Berman's cited "several significant legal deficiencies, including (A) inadequate notice to Brady of both his potential discipline and his alleged misconduct; (B) denial of the opportunity for Brady to examine one of two lead investigators, namely NFL Executive Vice President and General Counsel Jeff Pash; and (C) denial of equal access to investigative files, including witness interview notes."
Conspiracy theorists have gone as far as to say that Goodell had it out for Brady and the Patriots, a notion that always struck me as ridiculous. What would they have to gain by suspending their most accomplished player? Why would the NFL want to tarnish the legacy of the most storied franchise of the 21st century? It never seemed to make any sense, yet here we are, with a federal judge ruling Brady was denied his right to answer the charges against him.
If it was purposeful, it was malicious. If it wasn't, it was gross incompetence. Either way, Goodell and the league look particularly bad today. And this is just the beginning.
What will Berman's ruling mean for every suspension going forward? The NFL's ability to act without scrutiny in cases of substance abuse, failed drug tests and arrests may remain in tact, but how do we really know that players will be treated fairly when they appeal or ask for reinstatement? Remember that Daryl Washington, Josh Gordon and Justin Blackmon are still languishing on indefinite suspensions. Are they being treated fairly?
Before Thursday, you could put your faith in the process, at least somewhat secure in the knowledge that the NFL could police itself. But now, with Brady vindicated and getting ready to suit up against the Steelers, Goodell appears rudderless and powerless. Every single investigation and ruling will now be tainted. Every time we hear the name Ted Wells, or watch Goodell pontificate about a punishment, we'll all be thinking the same thing: "Well, this is going to be overturned in six months."
And who knows, maybe it'll go on longer than that; perhaps the NFL will win its appeal. It doesn't really matter. Ultimately, "Deflategate" ended up costing the Patriots some draft picks and $1 million in fines. But it cost Goodell quite a bit more – including the one thing that he always swore to protect: Integrity.