The Deflategate saga has seemed endless since arising from the NFL’s determination that the New England Patriots used improperly under-inflated footballs in the first half of the AFC title game at the end of the 2014 season. Tom Brady, the Patriots’ four-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, played the 2015 season while appeals of his four-game suspension by the league made their way through the federal court system.
But it appears the end is near, with Wednesday’s decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to reject Brady’s request for a rehearing of the ruling by a three-judge panel of that court that reinstated Brady’s Deflategate suspension.
Brady and the NFL Players Association fought the CBA. The CBA won.
Following the denial of Brady’s appeal, the NFLPA said it was “disappointed,” adding in a written statement that “there were clear violations of our collective bargaining agreement by the NFL and Commissioner Roger Goodell.”
The union also said in its statement: “Despite today’s result, the track record of this League office when it comes to matters of player discipline is bad for our business and bad for our game. We have a broken system that must be fixed.
“We will review all of our options carefully on behalf of Tom Brady and all NFL players.”
Brady’s suspension, it seems, will stand. And with it come consequences for both the league as a whole and the Patriots. So while this may in fact be the silliest sports scandal of all time, as it nears its conclusion the implications are wide-ranging.
In the bigger picture, Goodell’s authority under the sport’s collective bargaining agreement has been reinforced. In New England, Garoppolo, not Brady, will be the starter at quarterback to start the season. The Patriots and their coach, Bill Belichick, will have to find a way to remain in the Super Bowl-contending mix without Brady for a quarter of the regular season, undoubtedly employing the same us-against-the-world approach that served them so well during their march to a nearly perfect season in the aftermath of the Spygate ordeal nearly 10 years ago.
Brady’s legal options have not yet been fully exhausted. He still can appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. He still could seek a stay of his suspension that would endure while the case would be pending before the Supreme Court and keep playing during the upcoming season. But legal experts have said it is extremely unlikely the Supreme Court would agree to hear the case.
Brady’s chances of avoiding the suspension have been reduced to the longest of legal long shots, odds seemingly even more daunting than those once faced by a sixth-round draft choice attempting to become one of the game’s legendary quarterbacks.
Garoppolo, 24, is about to enter his third season as Brady’s backup. He has thrown 31 regular-season passes and now is poised to be the Patriots’ quarterback for their Sept. 11 opener at Arizona.
He also would play at home Sept. 18 against the Miami Dolphins, Sept. 22 against the Houston Texans and Oct. 2 against the Buffalo Bills. Brady would be eligible to return for New England’s fifth game, Oct. 9 at Cleveland.
Belichick once coached the Patriots to an 11-win season, just missing the playoffs, with Matt Cassel at quarterback following Brady’s season-ending knee injury suffered in the 2008 opener. Astute NFL observers know not to count out Belichick and the Patriots even with Brady relegated to spectator status for a significant portion of this season.
Belichick is a master at using every transgression against his team, real or perceived, to his players’ psychological advantage. When he and the Patriots were labeled cheaters by many after being found guilty by the league of videotaping opponents’ coaching signals in violation of NFL rules, Belichick coached the team to 18 straight victories to begin the 2007 season. Only a memorably compelling Super Bowl upset at the hands of the New York Giants kept those Patriots from securing the first 19-0 season in league history.
The debate will rage on about the legacies of Brady, Belichick and the Patriots: Are they NFL scoundrels? Or the victims of jealous opponents looking for any way to secure an off-field triumph in place of an on-field win? It seems unlikely at this point that anyone’s opinion will be changed. But the arguments are made just as passionately as ever.
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Brady and his legal representatives put this off as long as they could. Brady played last season after U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman’s ruling last September overturned the suspension. It was reinstated in April by a 2-1 vote of the appeals court judges.
The NFLPA seemed to put a dent in Goodell’s authority in player-disciplinary cases with a string of victories fighting league sanctions in cases involving Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy and Brady. Owners of some NFL teams once seemed willing to bargain away some of Goodell’s power and give the union what it wants: neutral arbitration for players’ appeals of discipline imposed in cases under the sport’s personal conduct policy and integrity-of-the-game rules. But a player-discipline accord between the league and union never was struck.
The leverage has swung back in the league’s favor with a recent triumph in an arbitration case that found the NFL’s policy of placing players on paid leave (via the commissioner’s exempt list) with cases pending under the personal conduct policy to be valid, and now with the virtual outcome of the Brady case.
If the players are going to secure the changes they want to the disciplinary system and Goodell’s role in it, they probably will have to do so at the bargaining table for the next CBA. That is not a short-term prospect. The current labor deal runs through 2020.