By Steve Ginsburg and Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The National Football League's hardline stance on Tom Brady and his role in "Deflategate" sparked predictions on Tuesday that the star quarterback could see his four-game suspension reduced through an appeal.
The severity of the punishment for the New England Patriots star combined with a spate of overturned NFL sanctions bode well for Brady in the appeals process, experts said.
The four-time Super Bowl champion and one of the league's marquee players has said he will appeal the penalty, handed down on Monday for his part in deflating footballs for the AFC title game in January.
The appeal, which must be lodged by Thursday at 5 p.m. ET (2100 GMT), would follow a flurry of questions about NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's handling of other high-profile cases last season.
Brady's four-game suspension is seen as harsh by many, who note it is the same as what is handed to first time offenders violating the league's rules on performance-enhancing drugs, and double the number of games Goodell initially gave Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice for a domestic violence incident.
The league later changed Rice's punishment to an indefinite suspension of the running back, who knocked out his wife in a New Jersey elevator, only to have that decision turned aside on appeal.
"The NFL has typically won most of the appeals, but they're on a bit of a losing streak lately," said Robert Boland, a former NFL agent and currently professor of sports management at New York University's Tisch Center.
Brady's failure to cooperate with the investigation - one of the reasons cited in the penalty - might not stand up on appeal, Boland added.
"It wasn't that he failed to appear or speak to the NFL, it was that he refused to give up phone records that were personal to him," he said. "I think that may be an overstep. There's a real possibility that this penalty will be reduced."
'MISDEMEANOR IS A FELONY'
The NFL took a harder-than-usual line with Brady in the wake of an outcry over its handling of domestic abuse cases this season involving several players, including Rice.
"I don't think you would have seen this penalty a year ago," said Michael Cramer, director of the Texas Program in Sports and Media at the University of Texas-Austin. "This is a strong penalty.
"It is almost like the NFL has told us a misdemeanor is a felony and we now have to consider that and it forces people to say he must have really done something wrong."
The NFL said the Patriots likely deflated the footballs below league standards on purpose so Brady could grip the ball better in cold and wet conditions during their 45-7 rout of the Indianapolis Colts that put New England in the Super Bowl.
Brady was "more probably than not" aware of the scheme, Ted Wells, an attorney hired by the NFL to look into the allegations, said in a 243-page report.
Wells on Tuesday angrily disputed remarks by Brady's agent Don Yee that the NFL "reached a conclusion first, and then determined so-called facts later."
"All of this discussion that people at the league office wanted to put some type of hit on the most popular, iconic player in the league - the real face of the league - it just doesn't make any sense," he told reporters during a conference call. "It's really a ridiculous allegation."
While the team and head coach Bill Belichick were exonerated of wrongdoing in the scandal, New England was still fined $1 million and forced to give up two draft choices, a first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017.
After their victory over the Colts, the Patriots defeated the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to win the Super Bowl, which some now view as tainted.
ARBITRATOR IS KEY
Matthew Mitten, professor of law and director of the National Sports Law Institute at Marquette University Law School, said if a truly independent arbitrator - one without ties to the NFL - is chosen to hear the case, Brady is likely to have his penalty reduced.
"It's pretty unlikely they would say, 'Well, there wasn't any justification to impose any discipline," he said. "It's more likely the suspension would be cut to a game or two."
Once Brady, 37, formally files an appeal, Goodell will have a week to announce he will hear the case, or appoint a hearing officer of his choice. The Patriots have not said whether they will appeal the penalties imposed on the team.
Speculation is that Goodell will choose Harold Henderson to hear an appeal of Brady's case. A former NFL executive, he heard the appeal of Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson, who was suspended last season for beating his child with a switch.
Henderson upheld Peterson's suspension but the players union took the case to federal court and won. The judge sent the case back to the NFL for further proceedings under the collective bargaining agreement. He will also hear the 10-game suspension handed to Greg Hardy for a domestic abuse incident.
If Brady loses his appeal, he could turn to the court system just as Peterson did.
A defamation lawsuit would be difficult for Brady to win because the burden would be on him to prove not only that what was said about him was false but that it was said with reckless disregard for the truth, said Robert Corn-Revere, a media lawyer in Washington.
"He would have a real uphill battle," Corn-Revere said.
(Reporting by Steve Ginsburg; Editing by Alan Crosby)