A federal appeals court has ruled that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady must serve a four-game "Deflategate" suspension imposed by the NFL, overturning a lower judge and siding with the league in a battle with the players union.
The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday in New York. The decision by a three-judge panel may end the legal debate over the scandal that led to months of football fans arguing over air pressure and the reputation of one of the league's top teams.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell suspended Brady for four games after finding the quarterback knew about the deflation of game balls before the January 2015 AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts and that he had obstructed the league's investigation. New England beat the Colts 45-7 and went on to win the Super Bowl.
After Goodell rejected Brady's appeal of the four-game suspension, the league went to federal court to get a judge's approval of its handling of the case. But Judge Richard Berman ruled against the NFL a week before the season began, eliminating Brady's four-game suspension.
The NFL appealed, leaving it to the 2nd Circuit to decide whether the suspension would be reinstated.
Both parties argued their cases in court in New York in March, with media reports indicating that the three-judge panel gave Brady's attorneys a tough time.
The ruling can be appealed to the full 2nd Circuit or to the U.S. Supreme Court, but it would likely be a steep and time-consuming climb even if the courts took the unusual step to consider it.
In a majority opinion written by Judge Barrington D. Parker, the 2nd Circuit said its 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 for ourselves 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," the opinion said. "Our obligation is limited to determining whether the arbitration proceedings and award met the minimum legal standards established by the Labor Management Relations Act."
The 2nd Circuit said the contract between players and the NFL gave the commissioner authority that was "especially broad."
"Even if an arbitrator makes mistakes of fact or law, we may not disturb an award so long as he acted within the bounds of his bargained-for authority," the court said.
In a dissent, Chief Judge Robert Katzmann said Goodell failed to even consider a "highly relevant" alternative penalty.
"I am troubled by the Commissioner's decision to uphold the unprecedented four-game suspension," Katzmann said. "It is ironic that a process designed to ensure fairness to all players has been used unfairly against one player."
The NFL Players Association said in a statement it was disappointed:
"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."
The NFL said the court ruled Goodell acted properly in cases involving the integrity of the game:
"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 NFLPA for the past 40 years."
The Patriots open the 2016 season on Sept. 11 at Arizona, followed by games at home against the Dolphins, Texans and Bills. Brady's backup at quarterback is Jimmy Garoppolo, who appeared in 11 games over his first two seasons but hasn't made a start.