NEW YORK -- A federal judge erased New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension Thursday for the Deflategate controversy that the NFL claimed threatened football's integrity.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell went too far in affirming punishment of the Super Bowl-winning quarterback, criticizing him for dispensing "his own brand of industrial justice." Brady has insisted he played no role in a conspiracy to deflate footballs below the allowable limit at last season's AFC Championship Game.
"As I have said during this process and throughout his Patriots career, Tom Brady is a classy person of the highest integrity. He represents everything that is great about this game and this league," Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. "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. Judge Richard Berman understood this and we are greatly appreciative of his thoughtful decision that was delivered today. Now, we can return our focus to the game on the field."
Berman's ruling, however, will not end the dispute; the league appealed the decision later Thursday.
"We are grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today's decision," Goodell said in a statement. "We will appeal today's ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game. The commissioner's responsibility to secure the competitive fairness of our game is a paramount principle, and the league and our 32 clubs will continue to pursue a path to that end."
The league appealed to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan with a one-page notice from NFL attorney Daniel Nash. The league did not seek an emergency stay, freeing Brady to play while an appeals court considers the case. That could take months since the league would have to show it would suffer irreparable harm to speed up the timetable.
Berman cited "several significant legal deficiencies'' in the league's handling of the controversy, including no advanced notice of potential penalties, the refusal to produce a key witness and the apparent first-ever discipline of a player based on a finding of "general awareness'' of someone else's wrongdoing.
"Because there was no notice of a four-game suspension in the circumstances presented here, Commissioner Goodell may be said to have 'dispensed his own brand of industrial justice,''' Berman wrote, partially citing wording from a previous case. He said a player's right to notice was "at the heart'' of the collective bargaining agreement "and, for that matter, of our criminal and civil justice systems.''
"The court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others,'' the judge wrote.
In a statement, NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith said the ruling proves that the contract with the NFL doesn't grant Goodell "the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading.''
"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, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed," Smith said.
"We are happy for the victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans."
The written decision frees Brady to play in the Sept. 10 season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. In Las Vegas, the Patriots immediately moved from 3-point favorites to 6.5-point favorites in that Week 1 game, and the over/under total grew from 48.5 points to 51 at William Hill's Nevada sportsbook.
A Steelers source said players didn't seem happy with the decision since it came just a week before the game but at least now know which quarterback to prepare for. Jimmy Garoppolo was in line to start if Brady's suspension was upheld.
However, both coach Mike Tomlin and defensive end Cameron Heyward maintained Thursday night that they expected Brady to play all along, or at least they prepared that way.
"All along, we always thought he would play," Heyward said. "That's just the mindset."
Added Tomlin: "When you prepare to face the New England Patriots, you better prepare to play Tom Brady."
Goodell, meanwhile, won't be at the game, a league spokesman told Fox Sports. The commissioner traditionally attends the Thursday night league opener.
Reactions to Berman's long-awaited decision came quickly after it was announced Thursday morning.
The Patriots, who were fined $1 million and docked two draft picks as part of the league's initial punishment, tweeted.
September 3, 2015
Brady's teammate, tight end Rob Gronkowski, added:
Let's go! This season to be one heck of another ride!! #PatsNation pic.twitter.com/vFZ1vmBxAq— Rob Gronkowski (@RobGronkowski) September 3, 2015
And much of New England rejoiced, with 30 digital billboards in Massachusetts saying "Vindicated!" and even a Dunkin' Donuts in Maine offering Berman free coffee for life.
Berman's Manhattan courtroom heard the appeal immediately after Goodell upheld Brady's four-game suspension, blasting the quarterback for arranging the destruction of his cellphone and its nearly 10,000 messages just before he was interviewed for the NFL investigation. The union countersued, saying Brady did nothing wrong and asking the judge to nullify the suspension.
The league spent more than $3 million for its investigation by high-powered attorney Ted Wells, who had conducted probes for the NFL in the past. While Wells' 243-page report found it was "more probable than not'' that two Patriots ballhandling employees deliberately released air from Patriots game balls at January's 45-7 New England victory over the Indianapolis Colts, it cited no direct evidence that Brady knew about or authorized it.
Goodell, though, went beyond the initial investigation report, finding in late July as a result of testimony from Brady and others that the quarterback conspired with the ball handlers and tried to obstruct the league's investigation, including by destroying his cellphone.
The commissioner said he concluded Brady "knew about, approved of, consented to, and provided inducements and rewards" to ensure balls were deflated.
Berman attacked the league while questioning one of its lawyers at two hearings, citing a lack of proof against Brady and asking how Goodell settled on a four-game suspension instead of other discipline.
Brady's side contended that "[n]o player suspension in NFL history has been sustained for an alleged failure to cooperate with -- or even allegedly obstructing -- an NFL investigation."
As evidence, it pointed to the NFL's $50,000 fine but no suspension of Brett Favre for lack of cooperation in his 2010 sexual harassment investigation. Berman, meanwhile, cited former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's decision when he overturned Goodell's initial ruling in the New Orleans Saints' Bountygate case.
"There is no evidence of a record of past suspensions based purely on obstructing a League investigation," Berman noted.
Berman's ruling comes after Goodell also was criticized for his handling of cases involving Minnesota Vikings star Adrian Peterson (child injury) and former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice (domestic violence).
In Thursday's ruling, Berman addressed the NFL's "broad" policy against conduct detrimental to the league, calling it "legally misplaced." He specifically referenced the Peterson and Rice cases, noting that in both the players were disciplined only "after findings were made under the specific domestic violence policy."
An NFLPA source said of possible ramifications of Goodell having yet another decision on discipline overturned by a judge: "Hopefully the owners will engage us in a process for meaningful change."
Said NFLPA president Eric Winston: "I am happy for Tom, and it's important to remember that when one player's rights are upheld, it is a victory for all players. However, this whole ordeal has highlighted the need for players and owners to work together to make all policies fair and transparent for everyone in our game. I welcome an opportunity to have open and constructive dialogue with the league in the near future for how we can best accomplish that."
The Patriots wrapped up their preseason schedule Thursday night with a 12-9 loss to the New York Giants in Foxborough. Brady was not in attendance.
Information from ESPN's Ed Werder, Jeremy Fowler and David Purdum and The Associated Press was used in this report.