If Tom Brady is cleared of Deflategate charges, could he file defamation suit against NFL?

By Christopher Price on June 29, 2015 at 9:33 pm ET
Tom Brady leads a healthy group of Big 10 alums on the New England roster. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Could Tom Brady try and sue Roger Goodell or the league for defamation if he’s cleared?. (Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

Tom Brady has been caught up in the Deflategate maelstrom since just after the AFC title game, and has been forced to deal with a series of attacks on his character as a result. While others have been quick to say he’s guilty, the quarterback has maintained his innocence.

While the story has yet to play out completely, if Brady is exonerated in some form or fashion over the next few months — whether it’s the result of having his suspension wiped clean by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or having the penalty overturned in court — could he try and get some payback against the league in the form of a defamation suit?

While it would be an intriguing proposition for the quarterback to try and extract a pound of flesh from those who put this whole thing in motion, legal analyst Michael McCann said Monday that Brady would “face an uphill climb” if he chose that course of action against the league, the commissioner or Troy Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations who initially handed down the four-game suspension.

“Brady would need to show that not only were public statements made about him false and damaging to his reputation, but he’d have to show those statements were made with actual malice, which means knowingly or intentionally,” McCann said. “In other words, if the Wells Report contained reputationally-damaging inaccuracies or lies about Brady, that would not be enough for Brady to prevail in a defamation lawsuit. He’d have to show that Wells included statements that Wells knew were false. That would be hard to show, especially as it relates to a controversy where there remain different scientific opinions and theories about what may have happened.

“Debate about the science in Deflategate is itself a defense for defendants in any defamation lawsuit brought by Brady. Those defendants can argue that at the time they made those statements about Brady, there was debate about what happened in Deflategate and thus a lack of consensus about what constituted the truth and what constituted a lie.”

There is some precedent here for a player pursuing legal action against the league. Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma, who was initially suspended for a season for his apparent involvement in the Bountygate scandal, later saw his ban lifted. Consequently, he filed a defamation suit against Goodell, one that was later dismissed because of insufficient claims and evidence. (When initially told about Deflategate, Vilma had some simple advice for Brady: “Lawyer up.”) If Brady decided to pursue legal action against the league, even though Vilma’s case wasn’t successful, McCann believes he would at least ponder taking a page from Vilma’s playbook.

“If he decided to go that route, Brady would likely retain attorneys who specialize in defamation litigation,” McCann said. “One possibility is Peter Ginsberg, a New York City attorney who represented Jonathan Vilma in Vilma’s defamation lawsuit against Roger Goodell in the aftermath of Bountygate. Ginsberg has represented other athletes as well, including Michael Irvin and Vijay Singh, in legal matters concerning their reputation.”