Brady loses ‘Deflategate’ appeal, ordered to serve suspension

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NEW YORK (AP) — New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must serve a four-game “Deflategate” suspension imposed by the National Football League, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, overturning a lower-court judge and siding with the league in a battle with the players’ union.

A three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals delivered a split decision that may end the legal debate over the scandal that led to months of football fans arguing over air pressure and the reputation of one of the league’s top teams and its star leader. The court said that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did not deprive Brady of “fundamental fairness” with his procedural rulings.

The ruling is likely to fuel a fresh round of debate over what role, if any, Brady played in setting the inflation levels of footballs used during part of the American Football Conference championship game in January 2015. The Patriots won the contest over the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, and went on to win Super Bowl.

The appeals ruling follows a September decision by Manhattan Judge Richard Berman that went against the league, letting Brady skip the suspension last season. The decision can be appealed, but doing so would present a steep, costly campaign.

Goodell insisted the suspension was deserved.

The three-judge panel sided 2-1 with the NFL, saying that the league’s disciplinary measure was properly grounded in the collective bargaining agreement and Brady was treated fairly.

In a majority opinion written by Judge Barrington D. Parker, the 2nd Circuit said its review of labor arbitration awards “is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential — indeed, among the most deferential in the law.”

“Our role is not to determine for ourselves whether Brady participated in a scheme to deflate footballs or whether the suspension imposed by the commissioner should have been for three games or five games or none at all. Nor is it our role to second-guess the arbitrator’s procedural rulings,” the opinion said. “Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act.”

The decision said the contract between players and the NFL gave the commissioner authority that was “especially broad.”

“Even if an arbitrator makes mistakes of fact or law, we may not disturb an award so long as he acted within the bounds of his bargained-for authority,” the court said.

Chief Judge Robert Katzmann dissented.

“I am troubled by the commissioner’s decision to uphold the unprecedented four-game suspension,” Katzmann said. “The commissioner failed to even consider a highly relevant alternative penalty.”

The appeals court ruled well before the start of the 2016 season, avoiding the tension built last year when Brady didn’t learn until a week before the season started that he would be allowed to play in the Patriots’ opener.

At oral arguments in March, the appeals judges seemed skeptical of arguments on Brady’s behalf by the NFL Players Association.

Circuit Judge Denny Chin said evidence of ball tampering was “compelling, if not overwhelming” and there was evidence that Brady “knew about it, consented to it, encouraged it.”

The league argued that it was fair for Goodell to severely penalize Brady after he concluded the prize quarterback tarnished the game by impeding the NFL’s investigation by destroying a cellphone containing nearly 10,000 messages.

Judge Parker said the cellphone destruction raised the stakes “from air in a football to compromising the integrity of a proceeding that the commissioner had convened.”

“So why couldn’t the commissioner suspend Mr. Brady for that conduct alone?” he asked. Parker added: “With all due respect, Mr. Brady’s explanation of that made no sense whatsoever.”

Parker also was critical of the NFL at the arguments, saying Brady’s lengthy suspension seemed at “first blush a draconian penalty.”

Lawyers on each side did not immediately comment.

Written by Larry Neumeister