Judge Richard Berman vacated the NFL's punishment of Tom Brady on Thursday, putting an end to our long national nightmare known as Deflategate, for now.
Brady is clear to start the Patriots' season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers next Thursday night, when the Pats will also raise the team's fourth Super Bowl banner at Gillette Stadium. However, Roger Goodell promised in a statement that the NFL would appeal the decision, so it's not like Deflategate will be buried for eternity with Judge Berman's ruling.
This hearing was never about whether or not Brady actually knew about, or had anything to do with, a ball deflating scheme. It was about whether or not the punishment process was fair to Brady, and Judge Berman found that it was not.
A closer look at the Judge's 40-page ruling shows three key areas he found unfair to Brady.
The first is that Brady had no notice of potential discipline for being "generally aware" of any wrongdoing. While this seems like the biggest technicality of the reasons, it's valid. Ted Wells told Brady he didn't need his phone, then the NFL turned around and hammered him for not providing it, making that one of the biggest red flags against him and confirming his guilt in the eyes of many.
But Judge Berman's bigger problem with notice was the NFL equating Brady's offense to that of steroid use. Judge Berman wrote, "the Award offers no scientific, empirical, or historical evidence of any comparability between Brady's alleged offense and steroid use."
The second area was completely tied to NFL lead council Jeff Pash. At the outset, the NFL tried to pretend this was an "independent" investigation, yet Pash was not only listed as "co-lead investigator" on the front of the Wells Report, he also had a chance to edit it. What exactly did he edit? We'll never know because Brady was given no access to question Pash about his involvement.
The third area also has to do with the access afforded Brady's legal team. Not only did the NFL not allow Pash to be questioned, they didn't allow any of the notes from the investigation to be reviewed. As the NFL saw it, they could put together The Wells Report however they wanted and everyone just needed to accept it as fact without the ability to review how they came to their conclusions.
While Ted Wells did an admirable job framing his report to paint a picture of guilt, the actual findings, scientific or otherwise, were all debatable and unclear, as often stated in the footnotes of the report. Judge Berman repeatedly pointed out all the qualifiers in The Wells Report that essentially said it seems like something was going on here, but we don't really have any proof of it.
Really, these three points only scratch the surface of how badly the NFL handled this entire thing. There's no mention of the repeated leaks from the NFL offices of blatant lies that could only paint a sinister picture of Brady.
There was the Chris Mortensen report that was allowed to set the tone of the entire ordeal. That was so damaging that many in the general public still believe "11 of the 12 Patriots balls were two PSI below the legal limit". In reality, the Patriots balls were on average two-one-hundredths lower than what the Ideal Gas Law said they should be, a statistically insignificant amount.
Then there's this report from NFL.com's Judy Battista, a blatant lie that never would've been outed if Judge Berman hadn't ordered the release of the appeal transcripts.
You can hate the Patriots and think they're the biggest cheaters in football history, but any way you slice it the NFL purposely spreading lies to tarnish their players like this is unacceptable on every level.
The NFL thought they had learned from their mistakes in past controversies. They wanted to leave no doubt this time, successfully evading Judge David Doty's court in Minnesota that had been player-friendly. They hand-picked this New York court and it backfired horribly on them, not because the Judge was a player's union shill, but because their handling of Deflategate was that much a farce.
Many saw Judge Berman's repeated hammering of the NFL's positions during the last month of hearings as a sign that he was just pushing for a settlement, but now it's clear he truly believed every point he challenged them on. His ruling reads like it was ripped directly from the Patriots' "Wells Report Context" website.
We have not heard the end of Deflategate, at the very least the Patriots still have to surrender picks in both the 2016 (first-rounder) and 2017 (fourth-rounder) drafts, and who knows how the NFL's appeal will unfold. But what is clear is that the NFL once again completely mishandled a case of discipline and tarnished the legacy of one of their best players in the process.
Commissioner Goodell might've burned some important bridges with this one as well, at least losing the faith of one of the league's most influential owners, Robert Kraft. Many of the other NFL owners continue to have their heads buried in the sand, but hopefully this episode wakes them up to how their league is really being run.