Tom Brady might have reason to practice more intensely after a judge made clear Wednesday that the New England quarterback's four-game suspension for underinflated footballs is in jeopardy.
U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman warned an NFL lawyer during oral arguments that there was precedent for judges to toss out penalties issued by arbitrators in the scandal now known as "Deflategate."
Berman cited several weaknesses in the way the NFL handled the controversy that could result in a victory by Brady and the NFL Players Association.
The suspension was upheld by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell last month after he concluded Brady conspired with two Patriots equipment employees to deflate footballs before New England easily beat the Indianapolis Colts in January's AFC championship game.
If there is no negotiated deal, Berman said he hopes to rule by Sept. 4, six days before the Patriots host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the NFL's season-opening game. He encouraged a settlement, calling it a "logical and rational option."
Neither Brady nor NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was in court Wednesday. Brady returned to Patriots practice after participating in negotiations along with Goodell and lawyers on both sides a day earlier. The Manhattan judge said both would be required to attend an Aug. 31 hearing.
During more than two hours of arguments by attorneys, the judge noted other arbitration decisions have been rejected when a key witness was not allowed to testify as he questioned why NFL Executive Vice President Jeff Pash - who worked on the NFL investigation - could not be interviewed by union lawyers during the suspension's appeal.
Berman said arbitration proceedings, while more relaxed than court proceedings, are still required to follow due process rules to ensure fairness.
He said a reference to the Jan. 18 game against the Indianapolis Colts was "conspicuously absent" in a conclusion from the NFL investigation that found Brady was generally aware of a plot to deflate game balls below what rules allow.
Finally, Berman said he could not understand how the commissioner opted to keep a four-game suspension over some other penalty. He asked what portion of it was for involvement in a deflated football scheme and what part was because Goodell concluded Brady didn't cooperate with the probe.
He also was troubled by Goodell's defense of the penalty on the grounds that it was comparable to penalties on players who use performance enhancing drugs.
When NFL lawyer Daniel Nash said both violations are an effort to gain a competitive advantage, the judge responded: "I still don't see how the four games is comparable to a player using steroids."
"It goes to the integrity of the game," Nash said.
The judge used stronger language than he had when he seemed to lean against the NFL at a similar hearing a week earlier, though he cautioned that he had not yet made up his mind which side would win.