When Judge Richard Berman vacated Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate, Berman not only handed the NFL a high-profile legal defeat, but he established the courthouse as the most viable option for players hoping to challenge the league’s policies. It’s a sign that the league must reform or face major—and embarrassing—ramifications for its disciplinary actions.
When allegations arose that the Patriots had illegally deflated game balls in the AFC championship game, the NFL hired Ted Wells to conduct an independent investigation. The resulting Wells Report concluded that it was “more probable than not” that Tom Brady “was at least generally aware” of the ball-deflation scheme, prompting NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to suspend Brady for four games. Brady appealed the punishment, and the matter went to arbitration. Goodell, serving as arbitrator, upheld the suspension and proclaimed that Brady “knew about, approved of, consented to, and provided inducements and rewards in support of” the deflation scheme.
The league’s response to Deflategate was reminiscent of its response to the Miami Dolphins bullying scandal in 2013. Allegations arose that Dolphins players had bullied offensive lineman Jonathan Martin to the point of a breakdown. (Martin briefly checked himself into the hospital before leaving the team.) The league commissioned an independent investigation, also headed by Wells, which produced a 144-page report detailing the torment heaped upon Martin by his teammates. It vilified lineman Richie Incognito, who would not find work in 2014, and led to the firing of offensive line coach Jim Turner. The report served as some rare good publicity for the commissioner’s office.