New York: A US federal judge on Thursday overturned a four-game suspension imposed on New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady by the National Football League for his alleged role in the "Deflate-gate" controversy.
The ruling, which NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell promptly vowed to appeal, was a stunning legal victory for Brady, one of the sport`s biggest names, who had repeatedly denied any wrongdoing in connection with the intentional deflating of footballs before a January playoff game.
It came exactly a week before the Patriots -- the defending Super Bowl champions -- kick off the 2015-16 season on September 10, hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers in Foxborough, Massachusetts.
Judge Richard Berman determined Goodell had gone too far in suspending Brady, saying he dispensed "his own brand of industrial justice."
Berman questioned the so-called independence of investigators who found Brady was probably "generally aware" that Patriots employees had purposely deflated the balls -- making them easier to grip, grab and throw -- and found him uncooperative over questions about the January game.
Goodell had suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2015-16 season over the incident at the AFC championship. The Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts in that game, and went on to win the Super Bowl.
"Brady`s four-game suspension is vacated, effective immediately," Berman ruled.
But Goodell said the matter was not yet closed.
"We are grateful to Judge Berman for hearing this matter, but respectfully disagree with today`s decision," he said in a statement.
"We will appeal today`s ruling in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game."
The league`s statement made no mention of seeking any injunction that could keep Brady off the field as the appeal goes forward.
"While the legal phase of this process continues, we look forward to focusing on football and the opening of the regular season," Goodell said.The NFL Players Association welcomed the ruling, saying that the rights of all players under the collective bargaining agreement had been affirmed.
"While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of Commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power," NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said, lashing out at Goodell.
"We are happy for the victory of the rule of law for our players and our fans."
Berman concluded that Brady`s suspension was based on "several significant legal deficiencies."
Among them, he said Brady had been given "inadequate notice" of potential disciplinary action and been denied equal access to investigative files.
The quarterback was given no notice that he could receive a four-game suspension for "general awareness of ball deflation," and for not cooperating with an ensuing investigation, Berman wrote.
"No NFL policy or precedent provided notice that a player could be subject to discipline for general awareness of another person`s alleged misconduct," Berman said.
Berman also noted that Goodell never specified how much of the sanction was due to Brady`s supposed role in deflating the balls and how much to his alleged non-cooperation.
That alleged lack of cooperation included destruction of a mobile phone that Brady said was his usual procedure to preserve the privacy of himself and his supermodel wife Gisele Bundchen.
When Goodell upheld the original punishment, the case went to a federal court in New York.
Berman initially urged the two sides to reach a settlement, but intervened when they were unable to find a resolution.
Billionaire Patriots owner Robert Kraft this week dismissed the saga as the "most overblown story in recent NFL history."
Although Kraft accepted the $1 million fine and loss of two draft picks imposed on the club in the matter, he was outraged at the suspension of Brady and the impugning of his superstar`s integrity.
Although the Patriots did not immediately issue a response to Berman`s ruling, they posted a picture on Twitter of Brady in a fist-pumping mid-game celebration.
"Let`s go!" Brady team-mate Rob Gronkowski posted on Twitter. "This season to be one heck of another ride!!"