NEW YORK — A federal judge put the NFL on the defensive over its four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady on Wednesday, demanding to know what evidence directly links Brady to deflating footballs and belittling the drama of the controversy.
Judge Richard M. Berman in Manhattan repeatedly asked NFL lawyer Daniel L. Nash for direct evidence as he gave both sides a chance to state their case in the first hearing before him.
The public portion of the hearing ended at 12:45 p.m. EDT after about an hour, 20 minutes, and Berman began meeting individually with each side to continue settlement discussions in private.
The NFL sued two weeks ago asking for Berman to declare that its punishment of Brady was properly carried out. The players' union countersued, asking him to nullify the suspension.
Berman noted that Brady's statistics were better in the second half of the Patriots' 45-7 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts in the Jan. 18 AFC championship game than in the first half, when the balls were found to have been underinflated.
"You might say (Brady) got no better advantage from the under-inflation," the judge said.
Nash said there was "considerable evidence Mr. Brady clearly knew about this," but he conceded there was no "smoking gun."
At one point, Berman seemed to be trying 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 two 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 employees believed it would help their quarterback.
Brady and Commissioner Roger Goodell didn't speak during the hearing, except to introduce themselves to Berman.
At the hearing's start, Berman said he found "varying strengths to both sides here" and had not made up his mind as to how he might rule if the sides do not settle.
Goodell and Brady, along with their lawyers, met separately with the judge before the hearing started.
As Goodell arrived at the courthouse, he was greeted by a smattering of boos as he walked inside. Four minutes later, Brady arrived flanked by four security guards. Both men went through a security sweep like everyone else going to court.
Dozens of fans and journalists waited for two of the NFL's most famous faces at the front entrance of the courthouse, including some fans wearing deflated football hats they were hoping to sell.
Goodell suspended Brady after concluding he "knew about, approved 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 violates 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."
AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed to this report.