The U.S. Second Court of Appeals handed down a decision Monday morning that reinstates the four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his connection to deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game in January 2015.
Brady's suspension was nullified by U.S. District Judge Richard Berman back in September, just a week before the Patriots' first game of the 2015 regular season.
In a 33-page decision, the second circuit court's decision can be boiled down to the following statement:
"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. Accordingly, we reverse the judgement of the district court and remand with instructions to confirm the award."
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell talked about the personal importance of this appeal during his annual address during Super Bowl week in February. His comments seemed to foreshadow Monday's ruling, which puts New England in a difficult position as they approach the NFL draft. The team already lost a first-round pick due to the deflated football incident and subsequent investigation.
"This is not an individual player issue, this is about the rights that we negotiated in our collective bargaining agreement," Goodell said at the time. "We think they're very clear. We think they're important to the league going forward and we disagree with the district judge decision. We are appealing that -- which is part of the legal process -- I am not focused on that right now."
The Patriots open the season on the road against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday Night Football. New England then plays three straight home games against the Miami Dolphins, Houston Texans and Buffalo Bills.
The league issued the following statement regarding Monday's decision: "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. That authority has been recognized by many courts and has been expressly incorporated into every collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and (NFL Players Association) for the past 40 years."
From the NFLPA: "The NFLPA is disappointed in the decision by the Second Circuit. 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. Our Union will carefully review the decision, consider all of our options and continue to fight for players' rights and for the integrity of the game."
Brady still has legal recourse, and might seek a stay on the decision which would allow him to operate normally while the decision backs its way through the court system again.
"Tom Brady is almost out of (legal) chances," Gabe Feldman, director of the Tulane Sports Law Program, said Monday on NFL Network. "Never say never, but again, I think it's certainly much more likely than not that Tom Brady ends up serving that full four-game suspension at this point."
He added: "I think Tom Brady's first step might be to try to get a stay to try to get the suspension put on pause essentially while this continues to wind its way through the courts. But Tom Brady's next step is to make an en banc appeal to ask the entire second circuit to hear that -- those are very rarely granted. And even more rare is the Supreme Court to hear this case. So Tom Brady is almost out of chances. I think any chance he has left is very slim."
In March, Brady signed a two-year contract extension that chopped his 2016 salary from $9 million to $1 million, effectively bracing the quarterback for a massive financial loss in the event that a four-game suspension would be served. That extension also netted him more than $40 million in new money.
The court of appeals was firm in a decision that, according to the ruling, was more about upholding the power of the collective bargaining agreement and ensuring that Goodell did not overstep his written authority. Several times in the decision, the appeals court noted that their scope was fairly limited, and zeroed in on a few basic principles of the CBA.
"The basic principle driving both our analysis and our conclusion is well established: a federal court's review of labor arbitration awards is narrowly circumscribed and highly deferential -- indeed, among the most deferential in the law. Our role is not to determine 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.
"Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act."
In short, the appellate court's message to the NFLPA was simple: If you don't like it, why did you collectively bargain for it?
"Here, the parties contracted in the CBA to specifically allow the commissioner to sit as the arbitrator in all disputes brought pursuant to Article 46, Section 1(a). They did so knowing full well that the Commissioner had the sole power of determining what constitutes 'conduct detrimental' and thus knowing that the Commissioner would have a stake both in the underlying disciple and in every arbitration brought pursuant to Section 1(a). Had the parties wished to restrict the Commissioner's authority, they could have fashioned a different agreement."
For the record, the section of the CBA the appeals court is referring to says "All disputes involving a fine or suspension imposed upon a player for conduct on the playing field ... will be processed exclusively as follows: The commissioner will promptly send written notice of his action to the player, with a copy to the NFLPA. Within three business days following such a written notification, the player affected thereby, or the NFLPA with the player's approval, may appeal in writing to the Commissioner."