NEW YORK • A United States judge's decision to strike down New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's four-game "Deflate-gate" ban means the superstar can play in the National Football League's (NFL) season opener on Thursday.
The ruling by US District Judge Richard Berman not only paves the way for Brady to take the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers, but is also a public relations embarrassment for NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. It calls into question his role as the league's ultimate authority.
"Brady's four-game suspension is vacated, effective immediately," Berman ruled after failing to induce the warring sides to reach a settlement.
The decision, however, is not a definitive end to a saga that has shadowed the NFL since January. Then, accusations surfaced that the Patriots used balls inflated below the league minimum in the first half of the American Conference championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
Goodell said the league would appeal "in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game". But Berman concluded that Goodell overstepped his bounds in the punishment meted out to Brady, which the judge said was based on "several significant legal deficiencies".
Berman questioned the independence of investigators who found Brady was probably "generally aware" that Patriots staff had purposely deflated the balls - making them easier to grip, grab and throw - and found him uncooperative over questions about the controversial game.
"With respect to 'general awareness' of others' misconduct... Brady had no notice that such conduct was prohibited or any reasonable certainty of potential discipline stemming from such conduct," Berman wrote, at one point accusing Goodell of dispensing "his own brand of industrial justice".
Berman found that Goodell's argument that tampering with the balls merited punishment similar to that for doping was flawed. He said the lack of equal access to investigative files for Brady and the refusal to make NFL lawyer and "Deflate-gate" investigator Jeff Pash available as a witness at his appeal made the process "fundamentally unfair" to the player.