NEW YORK (AP) — A judge’s ruling freeing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to play football erased his four-game suspension but failed to address the root question of the ‘‘Deflategate’’ scandal: What did Brady know about a plot to deflate balls before January’s AFC championship game?
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman thoroughly trashed NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s handling of the NFL disciplinary process in his Thursday ruling, but did little to cast aside the perception by some that Brady knew more than he was willing to reveal about the scheme the league has blamed on Patriots ball handlers.
Berman noted that Brady’s statistics were better in the second half of the 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts, when the balls were properly inflated. Yet conclusions about Brady himself were sparse after reviewing the NFL’s investigative report, Goodell’s arbitration hearing with Brady and other evidence.
The NFL is appealing the decision to the 2nd U.S. District Court of Appeals, a process that will likely play out much more slowly than the urgency afforded the initial lawsuits. And while Brady plays, the league’s appeal won’t focus on footballs or the quarterback, but on disagreements with Berman.
Brady posted a statement Friday night on Facebook.
‘‘While I am pleased to be eligible to play, I am sorry our league had to endure this. I don’t think it has been good for our sport — to a large degree, we have all lost,’’ Brady said. ‘‘I am also sorry to anyone whose feelings I may have hurt as I have tried to work to resolve this situation. I love the NFL. It is a privilege to be a member of the NFL community and I will always try to do my best in representing my team and the league in a way that would make all members of this community proud.’’
During the case, the NFL argued that a federal judge must defer to the judgment of an arbitrator who was properly chosen in a process spelled out in the collective bargaining agreement between the players’ union and the NFL. An appeal on the same grounds would argue Berman went too far, that federal courts can only overturn an arbitrator’s award if there’s an extreme offense and Goodell’s mistakes weren’t serious enough to flip the suspension.
Berman followed a path he outlined during two hearings when he hammered the league, saying Goodell went ‘‘far beyond’’ the investigative conclusions of attorney Ted Wells. The report from Wells said Brady was likely ‘‘generally aware’’ of the plot; Goodell later said Brady ‘‘knew about, approved of, consented to and provided inducements and rewards’’ to support the scheme.
Without addressing the points later, Berman recapped portions of Wells’ report and arguments made by an NFL attorney that there were signs Brady was involved, despite no smoking gun.
The judge also referred to Brady’s extensive testimony to Goodell about his preferences for footballs — testimony that was released as a result of the litigation. Berman said he reviewed the testimony, but offered nothing more about its contents.
The June testimony by Brady included terse moments when asked about anything related to inflation of footballs.
Did he ever consider ball inflation in choosing game balls?
‘‘Never,’’ Brady said.
Did he ever discuss the inflation of footballs with a ball handler?
In his entire career, did he ever ask the Patriots to alter footballs once he approved them?
But Brady had plenty to say about the extensive process of preparing footballs and the importance of getting the right grip and feel. He said one of the team’s equipment employees, John Jastremski, used sandpaper, dirt and even leather conditioner obtained from one of Brady’s college coaches. Jastremski and another equipment employee were fired by the Patriots over the deflations.
Under questioning from Goodell, Brady said he was told about inflation levels after a rainy game against the New York Jets last season, because he hated the game balls.
The quarterback got angry, he said ‘‘because I didn’t like — for the first time in my career, I didn’t like the way the football felt.’’ It turned out the balls had been inflated to 16 pounds per square inch — well above the 12 1/2 to 13 1/2 psi allowed by the rule book.
Brady said he told the equipment manager to make sure referees saw the air-inflation rules before games ‘‘because really I don’t want that to ever happen again.’’
Before the AFC championship game, Brady said he did something unprecedented because of a bad weather forecast: He decided 36 hours before game time to break in new balls to try to avoid the problems he had during the Jets game.
But when questioned about the inflation of balls that day, the terse answers came back. Brady said ‘‘no’’ when asked whether he said anything to Jastremski about the pressure levels or whether he suggested anything about pressure at any level.
Without addressing Brady, Berman said the NFL overreached. At one hearing, the judge said he didn’t see the ‘‘-gate’’ in ‘‘Deflategate,’’ the nickname bestowed on the scandal as it morphed into a mini-soap opera. At another hearing, Berman referred to the controversy as the ‘‘deflation situation.’’
Berman said he was overturning the NFL’s suspension of Brady because the player was never warned he could face suspension and because of ‘‘several significant legal deficiencies’’ in the NFL’s treatment of Brady.