Judge puts NFL on hot seat as he be­lit­tles ‘De­flate­gate’


A fed­eral judge put the NFL on the de­fen­sive Wed­nes­day over its four-game sus­pen­sion of Tom Brady, de­mand­ing to know what ev­i­dence di­rectly links the New Eng­land quar­ter­back to de­flated foot­balls and be­lit­tling the drama of the con­tro­versy.

“What is the di­rect ev­i­dence that im­pli­cates Mr. Brady?” Judge Richard M. Ber­man re­peat­edly asked NFL lawyer Daniel L. Nash at the first hear­ing in the civil case in Man­hat­tan fed­eral court as Brady and Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell looked on.

Nash re­sponded there was “con­sid­er­able ev­i­dence Mr. Brady clearly knew about this,” in­clud­ing records of text mes­sages and phone calls be­tween the quar­ter­back and one of two Pa­tri­ots em­ploy­ees im­pli­cated in the scan­dal known as “De­flate­gate.”

But he also said there was no “smok­ing gun” show­ing Brady had di­rect knowl­edge that the balls were un­der­in­flated for the first half of the Pa­tri­ots’ 45-7 win over the In­di­anapo­lis Colts in the AFC cham­pi­onship game Jan. 18.

Brady and Good­ell didn’t speak dur­ing the hear­ing, ex­cept to in­tro­duce them­selves to Ber­man. Brady, his head low­ered, looked dour as lawyers spoke for about 1 hour, 20 min­utes.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter­ward, Brady smiled slightly as he signed sketches for two court artists. Ber­man then met in­di­vid­u­ally with each side for more set­tle­ment dis­cus­sions in pri­vate.

The talks con­tin­ued more than four hours un­til about 5 p.m. Af­ter­ward, a smil­ing Brady left the court­house. Sev­eral peo­ple shouted “cheater, cheater!”

Ber­man could be seen briefly speak­ing with Good­ell in­side the court­house be­fore the com­mis­sioner left to a wait­ing sports util­ity ve­hi­cle about 10 min­utes af­ter Brady. Good­ell smiled as dozens of photo and video jour­nal­ists did their work. Nei­ther of them spoke and there was no im­me­di­ate word on the sta­tus of talks.

Two weeks ago, the NFL asked Ber­man to de­clare that its pun­ish­ment of Brady was prop­erly car­ried out. The play­ers’ union coun­ter­sued, ask­ing him to nul­lify the sus­pen­sion. The judge has sig­naled from the start that he wants the par­ties to reach a swift set­tle­ment.

On Wed­nes­day, Ber­man called it “ironic or not” that Brady’s sta­tis­tics were bet­ter in the sec­ond half of the AFC cham­pi­onship game, af­ter the balls were re-in­flated.

“You might say (Brady) got no bet­ter ad­van­tage from the un­der­in­fla­tion,” the judge said.

At one point, the judge also seemed to try to defuse the con­tro­versy, say­ing: “This De­flate­gate. I’m not sure where the ‘gate’ comes from.”

When the union got its chance to ar­gue, the judge asked at­tor­ney Jeffrey L. Kessler why one of the Pa­tri­ots em­ploy­ees would de­flate balls with­out Brady’s knowl­edge. Kessler said the union does not be­lieve the balls were de­flated but, if they were, the em­ployee did it on his own be­cause he “thought it would be good for his quar­ter­back.”

The judge also ques­tioned why Brady de­stroyed his cell­phone in the midst of the in­quiry — a move that the league ar­gues was fur­ther proof of his de­cep­tion. Kessler claimed that the quar­ter­back got rid of the phone on the ad­vice of his agent to pro­tect his pri­vacy but had oth­er­wise co­op­er­ated with the in­quiry.

How­ever, in hind­sight, “You’re right, it could have been done a dif­fer­ent way,” the lawyer said of the phone.

Both sides are sched­uled to re­turn to court next week.

In an email af­ter ev­ery­one left court, Kessler said: “Sorry, not com­ment­ing.”

Lawyers for the NFL did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment.

Good­ell sus­pended Brady af­ter con­clud­ing he “knew about, ap- proved of, con­sented to, and pro­vided in­duce­ments and re­wards” to sup­port a scheme in which a Pa­tri­ots em­ployee de­flated balls on game day. Brady in­sists he knew noth­ing about it.

In a July 28 de­ci­sion up­hold­ing the sus­pen­sion, Good­ell heav­ily crit­i­cized Brady for hav­ing an aide de­stroy a cell­phone con­tain­ing nearly 10,000 text mes­sages from a four-month stretch in­clud­ing the AFC cham­pi­onship game. He ac­cused him of ob­struct­ing the NFL probe about a con­tro­versy that rep­re­sented “con­duct detri­men­tal to the in­tegrity of, and public con­fi­dence in, the game of pro­fes­sional football.”

In court doc­u­ments, the union’s lawyers said the sus­pen­sion was un­fair and vi­o­lated the la­bor con­tract and com­plained that it would cause ir­repara­ble harm to Brady by forc­ing him to miss games.

They called a June ap­peal hear­ing be­fore Good­ell “a kan­ga­roo court pro­ceed­ing, bereft of fun­da­men­tally fair pro­ce­dures.”

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