NEW YORK (Reuters) - Star quarterback Tom Brady will play in the New England Patriots’ season opener next week after a federal judge threw out his “Deflategate” suspension on Thursday - but the National Football League has not conceded defeat just yet.
Within hours of the ruling, the NFL appealed the order vacating Brady’s four-game suspension.
U.S. District Judge Richard Berman’s decision in New York was a major setback for NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who had suspended Brady for his alleged role in a scheme to deflate footballs used in the Patriots’ January playoff victory.
The league’s appeal, which will likely take months to resolve, ensures the litigation will continue to loom over the 2015 season.
“While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season,” Goodell said in a statement.
Brady, 38, had been banned until an Oct. 18 clash with the Indianapolis Colts, which would have cost him nearly $2 million in salary. He is expected to start the Patriots’ first game on Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Shortly after the decision, the Patriots posted a picture on Twitter of Brady pumping his fist in the air during a game.
“Tom Brady is a classy person of the highest integrity,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement. “He represents everything that is great about this game and this league.”
Brady did not comment on the ruling, but his lawyer, Andrew Tulumello, said, “We are gratified by the court’s decision and look forward to Mr. Brady’s return to the playing field.”
Patriots fans, Brady’s teammates and Massachusetts politicians reacted with glee to the news. New England running back LeGarrette Blount said on Twitter, “Let’s goooo TB12!!! This is gonna be a fun season!!! 1st win of the year for #PatsNation.”
Berman said Goodell’s ruling was plagued by “several significant legal deficiencies,” including a failure to notify Brady beforehand that his alleged conduct could be punished by suspension.
“The court finds that Brady had no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for general awareness of ball deflation by others or participation in any scheme to deflate footballs,” Berman wrote.
The judge did not evaluate the underlying allegations, including whether Brady knew of the scheme, saying it was not his role as judge to review Goodell's factual findings. The ruling can be found at bit.ly/1KtOh6L.
For seven months, the controversy has dominated sports radio, made national headlines and inspired nicknames like “Deflategate” and “Ballghazi.”
Brady was suspended over the footballs used in the Patriots’ 45-7 postseason victory against the Colts that sent them to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24.
In May, Ted Wells, a lawyer the NFL hired to investigate the incident, found it was “more probable than not” that Brady was “generally aware” two low-level Patriots employees had conspired to let air out of the footballs, which can make them easier to grip.
Wells’ 243-page report, which cost more than $2.5 million, formed the basis for Brady’s suspension.
Berman, in addition to saying that Brady was not properly on notice that he could face a ban, criticized Goodell for comparing the quarterback’s penalty to that given to steroid users.
The judge also said Brady’s lawyers were improperly barred from cross-examining the NFL’s general counsel, Jeff Pash, who helped lead the Deflategate probe, and were unfairly denied access to certain investigative notes.
The league has already fined the Patriots a record $1 million and stripped the team of two draft picks, a penalty Kraft previously said he would “reluctantly” accept rather than appeal.
Amid months of recriminations and lawsuits, the stakes had grown beyond a mere four-game suspension. For the NFL and the union, the case became a test of how broadly to interpret Goodell’s authority to discipline players under the players’ collective bargaining agreement with the league.
For Brady, the allegations threatened his legacy as one of the NFL’s all-time greats. Brady and his wife, supermodel Gisele Bundchen, are one of the country’s most visible celebrity couples.
Brady was drafted with the 199th pick in the 2000 NFL draft and served as a backup for the Patriots before becoming the starter in his second season, leading the franchise to its first championship ever in 2002.
The quarterback is entering his 16th season and has played in six Super Bowls, winning four.
The NFL and the union had engaged in settlement talks for weeks with Berman, who urged them to find an acceptable solution. But a deal never emerged.
It is rare for a federal judge to overturn an arbitrator’s decision, in part because the legal standard is quite stringent.
“The courts say pretty much, unless something goofy going on, we’re not going to intervene,” said Alfred Yen, a Boston College Law School professor.
The ruling is the latest setback for Goodell, who has seen other punishments reduced or vacated on appeal, including in domestic abuse cases involving players Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy, as well as in the “Bountygate” case in which the New Orleans Saints were accused of paying bonuses for injuring opposing team players.
Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Writing by Joseph Ax; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Alan Crosby