Judge overturns Brady 'Deflate-gate' suspension

Jennie Matthew

New York (AFP) - A US judge overturned superstar quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension for his alleged role in the "Deflate-gate" controversy Thursday, calling it unfair in a ruling the National Football League vowed to appeal for the good of the sport.

The ruling by US District Judge Richard Berman paves the way for Brady to take the field with his New England Patriots when the Super Bowl champions host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL season-opener next Thursday.

"Brady's four-game suspension is vacated, effective immediately," Berman ruled after failing in his effort to induce the warring sides to reach a settlement.

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The decision however is not a definitive end to a saga that has shadowed the NFL since January, when accusations surfaced that the Patriots used balls inflated below the league minimum in the first half of the American Conference championship victory over Indianapolis.

NFL commissioner Roger 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 employees 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 Goodell's argument that tampering with the balls merited punishment similar to that for doping flawed.

He said the lack of equal access to investigative files afforded to Brady and the refusal to make an NFL lawyer and "Deflate-gate" investigator Jeff Pash available as a witness at his appeal made the process "fundamentally unfair" to the player.

- Slap for Goodell -

It was another slap in the face for Goodell, who has seen a string of disciplinary decisions overturned in courts or arbitration.

Among them, all player suspensions in the 2012 pay-for-injury "Bounty-gate" scandal involving the New Orleans Saints were vacated and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice's year-long suspension for domestic violence was overturned.

While the league will appeal, it will apparently not seek to keep Brady -- one of the biggest names in the NFL -- off the field.

"While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season," Goodell said.

The NFL Players Association welcomed the ruling, saying that the rights of all players under the collective bargaining agreement had been affirmed.

"While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said, lashing out at Goodell.

"We are happy for the victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans."

Billionaire Patriots owner Robert Kraft this week dismissed the saga as the "most overblown story in recent NFL history" and on Thursday lauded Berman's decision.

"As I have said during this process and throughout his Patriots career, Tom Brady is a classy person of the highest integrity," said Kraft, who accepted the $1 million fine and loss of two draft picks imposed on the club but never wavered in his support of his superstar signal-caller.

"He represents everything that is great about this game and this league. Yet, with absolutely no evidence of any actions of wrongdoing by Tom in the Wells report, the lawyers at the league still insisted on imposing and defending unwarranted and unprecedented discipline."

While Kraft spoke of the team now returning its focus to the field, Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was more exuberant.

"Let's go!" he tweeted. "This season to be one heck of another ride!!"

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