A federal appeals court has ruled that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must serve a four-game Deflategate suspension imposed by the NFL, overturning a lower judge and siding with the league in a battle with the NFL Players Association.
"We hold that the Commissioner properly exercised his broad discretion under the collective bargaining agreement and that his procedural rulings were properly grounded in that agreement and did not deprive Brady of fundamental fairness," the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday in a 2-1 decision in New York.
Brady, however, is not prepared to accept Monday's appeals court ruling and is exploring all his legal options with his attorneys, sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter.
The decision by a three-judge panel 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.
"We are pleased the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled today that the Commissioner properly exercised his authority under the collective bargaining agreement to act in cases involving the integrity of the game," the NFL said in a statement. "That authority has been recognized by many courts and has been expressly incorporated into every collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and NFLPA for the past 40 years."
It is also likely to fuel a fresh round of debate over what role, if any, the quarterback and top NFL star played in using underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game in January 2015. The Patriots won the contest over the Indianapolis Colts and then won the Super Bowl.
"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," Judge Barrington D. Parker wrote in the majority opinion. "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 2nd Circuit 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.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell insisted that the suspension was deserved.
"We're obviously pleased with the court's decision," Goodell told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday. "We think that was the right decision. They were very firm in their decision that that was within our authority and the judgments were based on solid facts."
The NFLPA expressed disappointment in the ruling in a statement and said it will review its options.
"We fought Roger Goodell's suspension of Tom Brady because we know he did not serve as a fair arbitrator and that players' rights were violated under our collective bargaining agreement," the NFLPA said.
The NFLPA and Brady can petition for a re-hearing in front of the same panel and then the entire 2nd Circuit Court or take their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, though either move is unlikely and would be a steep, costly and time-consuming climb. They would have to request a stay of Brady's suspension during an appeal.
The NFL has the option of implementing the full suspension or attempting to reach a settlement and avoid further appeals.
Ticket market-tracking company TiqIQ said that ticket listings for at least one of the Patriots' first four games was down almost double digits since news of the Deflategate reversal broke.
Listings for the Sept. 22 game at home against the Texans were down 8.22 percent on Monday, to an average of $430. Listings to the Miami and Buffalo home games were also down about 5.5 percent from Monday morning up until 3 p.m. ET.
Jimmy Garoppolo is only other quarterback currently on the Patriots' roster. He threw four passes in five games last season, completing one for six yards.
The Patriots had no official statement when reached by ESPN.
In Las Vegas, the Patriots, who were the consensus favorite to win Super Bowl 51 at 6-1, are now the co-favorites with the Seattle Seahawks at 8-1, according to sportsbook operator CG Technology. The Green Bay Packers (9-1), Pittsburgh Steelers (9-1) and Carolina Panthers (10-1) are deemed to be the next most likely teams to win the title game.
The appeals ruling follows a September decision by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman that went against the league, letting Brady skip the suspension. In his ruling, Berman cited "several significant legal deficiencies" in the league's handling of the controversy, including no advance 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.
The panel on Monday said the league's discipline was properly grounded in the collective bargaining agreement and that Brady was treated fairly. 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 settled the issue well before the start of the 2016 season, avoiding the tension that built last year when Brady didn't learn until a week before the season that he would be allowed to start in the Patriots' opener.
At oral arguments in March, appeals judges seemed skeptical of arguments made on Brady's behalf by the NFLPA.
Circuit Judge Denny Chin said evidence of ball tampering was "compelling, if not overwhelming" and that 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 that the prize quarterback tarnished the game by impeding the NFL's investigation by destroying a cellphone containing almost 10,000 messages.
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 was also critical of the NFL at the arguments, saying Brady's lengthy suspension seemed at "first blush a draconian penalty."
Brady signed a two-year contract extension during the offseason that dropped his 2016 salary from $9 million to $1 million. That could save Brady almost $2 million in lost salary during a four-game suspension.
ESPN's Andrew Brandt, Mike Reiss and Darren Rovell, ESPN Chalk, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.