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The strange logic of the Tom Brady "Deflategate" ruling

A federal judge let the air out of "Deflategate" Thursday, erasing New England quarterback Tom Brady's four-game suspension for a controversy the NFL claimed threatened football's integrity.

Let's begin with the standard disclaimer that the judge who made Thursday's ruling in the Tom Brady "Deflategate" case obviously knows way more about the law than I do, but that doesn't mean that his decision to vacate Brady's four-game suspension doesn't strain conventional logic.

The NFL and the players union have agreed to a collectively bargained contract that allows the NFL commissioner to mete out discipline to players who violate rules and engage in other behavior that might damage the integrity of the sport. That process is spelled out pretty specifically and it allows for commissioner Roger Goodell to be the judge and jury in those cases.

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That might not be the way I would set things up, since an impartial appeals process certainly would remove the appearance of arbitrariness that has undermined several of Goodell's high-profile disciplinary rulings, but the NFL and the union have stubbornly refused to let me rewrite their labor contract, so they'll have to stick with the one they've got until they negotiate a new one.

What this decision does is renegotiate the current agreement with the judge basically agreeing to change it in favor of the union. That might have a good outcome – since the next labor agreement likely will include a more clear-cut disciplinary system – but it still leaves open some interesting questions about the process by which this decision was reached.

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For instance, if federal judge Richard Berman really believed that the process that led to Brady's suspension was unfair, then why did he put both sides through the tortured negotiation process to try and reach a settlement before he had to rule.

I realize that's a standard practice in a civil dispute, but where is the logic in encouraging Brady's side to compromise on a lesser punishment if the judge already is convinced that any punishment based on Goodell's unilateral disciplinary powers was unfair?

Berman also criticized the NFL for levying a penalty on Brady that was equal to the prescribed punishment for the use of a banned substance, as if cheating to win a big playoff game was a minor offense.

Don't get me started on the rest of this story, which includes Patriots owner Robert Kraft making a big sweeping statement about Brady's "integrity." We all know that the Patriots have a different definition of integrity than the one you'll find in Webster's and they proved that long before Kraft agreed to pay a big fine and give up draft choices for cheating during last year's playoffs.

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Remember, this is the team that suspended two low-level equipment guys for tampering with the balls and rallied around the superstar meal-ticket quarterback who is covering his own butt at their expense. Oh yeah, and Spygate.

It's also curious that Berman chose to call out the NFL for not having a list of specific penalties for specific acts, ruling that Brady could not be suspended for four games because he didn't know in advance what the exact disciplinary penalty would be for either deflating footballs or destroying evidence in the case.

No federal judge would want that kind of restriction placed on his own judgment because there are countless contingencies that require judicial discretion.

Here's exactly what he said in the ruling: "Because there was no notice of a four-game suspension in the circumstances presented here, Commissioner Goodell may be said to have 'dispensed his own brand of industrial justice.'"

Well, yes. We're not talking about a bank robbery here. We're talking about a set of willful, non-criminal acts that – when tied together by a reasonable observer – lead to the obvious conclusion that Brady was involved to some extent in a plan to gain competitive advantage by violating the rules of the NFL.

Goodell is in charge of protecting the integrity of an "industry" that has a particular interest in the appearance of competitive propriety. If the judge had a slightly better understanding of sports history, he'd know that's why sports leagues have commissioners. The first one -- Kenesaw Mountain Landis -- was hired to clean up after baseball's infamous "Black Sox" scandal.

The notion that Goodell should have known to inform Brady in advance that if he destroyed his cellphone instead of turning it over to NFL investigators, he would be subject to a four-game suspension, is ridiculous on its face. Such a standard could be construed to require a specific penalty be prescribed in advance for every possible disciplinary eventuality.

So, if an NFL player climbed a tree during the offseason and embarrassed the NFL by capturing and barbecuing a federally protected California condor, Goodell would not be permitted to discipline him unless he had informed the player before dinner what the exact penalty would be for killing and eating an endangered bird.

Sure, that's a ridiculous example, but it is not any more ridiculous than the notion that a couple of equipment guys cooked up a plan all by themselves to tamper with the footballs that Brady would be throwing in the biggest game of the year to that point, and Brady had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Though much has been made of the fact that there is only circumstantial evidence to suggest that Brady was involved in the "Deflategate" conspiracy, it's important to remember that circumstantial evidence is still evidence, and it is admissible in a court of law.

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