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The Intersection of Deflategate and Federal Law


Tom Brady lost on appeal. A three-judge panel of the Second Circuit U.S. court of appeals upheld the N.F.L’s right to suspend him four games for deflating balls, reversing a ruling that overturned the suspension last year.

Does this mean that the judges have ruled that Brady did indeed arrange for the balls in question to be deflated? After all, the judge who ruled in Brady’s favor last year wasn’t terribly convinced.

Not at all. The question wasn’t whether Brady was culpable but whether NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s had the authority to issue the suspension. The panel ruled by a 2-1 vote that the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement gave Goodell the power to be judge, jury and executioner. If the players don’t like that, well, the union shouldn’t have agreed to those terms in the CBA in the first place.

Was the decision the right one? I’m not a lawyer. If you’re willing to give my opinions weight because on my expertise on the LSAT, that doesn’t bode well for your LSAT score. But one judge on the panel dissented, making a clever argument by analogy. The supposed benefits of having those balls slightly deflated are in line with the illicit benefit gained by having stickum on one’s hands: slightly better control of the ball. So shouldn’t the punishment be similar, too? Using stickum for the first time gets you a fine under $10,000.

Brady has until May 23 to decide whether to appeal. So the story will drag on. If Brady ends up serving his suspension this fall, it’ll be nearly two years after the alleged ball deflation happened. Brady will be suspended four games. Ray Rice was suspended half that amount after video surfaced of him dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator. And of course the NFL had no idea he had hit her, none at all, until the video from inside the elevator surfaced. She just fell, or something. If you believe that, I have a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in.

So the whole thing just makes Roger Goodell and the NFL look ridiculous. I suspect Brady is somewhat culpable here. But this long after the alleged offense, the punishment would have much more credibility were it backed up by an outside party’s acknowledgement that there’s something there to punish. On the other hand, the NFL’s ongoing PR issues don’t seem to have hurt TV ratings. People still watch football, no matter what.