For nearly eight months, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell have steadily built a colossal mountain out of a tiny molehill started over speculation that Tom Brady was aware of the slightest deflation of a few footballs, which may or may not have taken place.
Somehow, something that minor, something that falls under the same category in the NFL rule books as the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panther getting fined $25,000 for putting footballs in a dryer, spiraled into a multi million-dollar legal fee battle royal that ended with a four game suspension for Brady. It struck at the "integrity" of the game, claimed Goodell, going so far as to compare it to steroid usage.
It felt crazy as it unfolded, and feels crazier when it's articulated, and once it was placed in front of a federal judge over the last month, the courts agreed. And so it was that on Thursday morning said federal judge took the air out of Goodell's Deflate-Gate punishment for Brady, overturning the New England Patriots quarterback's four-game suspension.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman deemed Goodell was out of bounds in his discipline handed down to the Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Brady has been steadfast in insisting that he played no role in any sort of conspiracy to deflate footballs below the league mandated allowable limit at last season's AFC Championship Game, a 45-7 Patriots win over the Colts.
The league and the players' association brought the scandal to Berman's court immediately after Goodell upheld Brady's four-game suspension following Brady's appeal. Goodell's upholding of the suspension was centered around Brady's destruction of his cellphone and its nearly 10,000 messages just before his interview with the NFL. The league felt this was a destruction of evidence.
Earlier this year, the league spent millions on a massive investigation which led to the Wells Report, in which claims were made that it was "more probable than not" that Brady knew about two Patriots ball-handling employees deliberately releasing air from Patriots game balls at January's 45-7 New England victory over the Colts. However, it cited no direct evidence that Brady knew about or authorized it.
Form there, the commissioner concluded Brady "knew about, approved of, consented to, and provided inducements and rewards" to ensure balls were deflated. Not surprisingly, Berman attacked the league while questioning one of its lawyers at two hearings, citing a lack of proof against Brady. Berman also attacked Goodell's punishment, wondering how he settled on a four-game suspension instead of other discipline.
Eventually, Berman delivered his decision based on the rational outlined here:
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Of course, the big winners in any case like this are the attorneys and their families:
Berman's ruling does not necessarily end the dispute, as the league can appeal. For now, Brady begins preparing for next Thursday's season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Listen to Sean Pendergast on SportsRadio 610 from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays. Also, follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/SeanTPendergast.