The NFL Players Association proclaimed that the league reached a “new low” on Tuesday when commissioner Roger Goodell upheld Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for his involvement in deflating footballs before last year’s AFC championship game.
I’m not so sure about that. By standing firm against one of the NFL’s iconic players, Goodell has reasserted his position as the most powerful man in the game, if not all of professional sports. The commissioner has elevated himself above his troubles of a year ago and made it clear that he is not a man to be trifled with.
Goodell seemed like a man adrift in 2014. His mishandling of the Ray Rice matter, his inconsistency on player discipline and his fumbling attempts to explain himself left him a weakened leader and had skeptics wondering if he might lose his job.
But in the “Deflategate” saga, Goodell has decided to match Brady’s defiance with some of his own. He not only stood up to Brady, he threw a haymaker at him, revealing that the Patriots’ superstar quarterback had destroyed his cell phone in March at the time he was supposed to meet with investigator Ted Wells to discuss deflated footballs.
Like the rest of us, I’m sure Goodell would like this silly issue to go away for good, so we can concentrate on the new NFL season. But he has made a shrewd and calculated power play here. He is essentially telling Brady, ‘You want a fight? Fine, I’ll give you a fight.’
Goodell knows he has two crucial constituencies behind him. One, he looks strong for the owners, who pay his exorbitant salary and do not want the league to go soft on a New England franchise that has been guilty of cheating in the past. Second, and even more important, the commissioner has the great majority of the public on his side.
You can certainly make the case that four games was too harsh. If underinflating footballs was such a huge crime, it would be more than a $25,000 fine under the NFL rules. The league wants quarterbacks to feel comfortable with the balls. That’s why they changed the rules a few years back to allow teams to control their own footballs.
Greg Hardy had his sentence reduced to four games. Hardy was found guilty in a bench trial of abusing a woman, which involved throwing her on a bed covered with weapons. Taking the air out of footballs hardly rises to the same egregious level.
So Brady will probably fight on in court. He has reportedly told the players union to appeal in federal court. He’ll seek an injunction that would permit him to play while his case travels a predictably agonizing way through the court system. That would allow him to begin the season for the Pats and play here against the Bills in Week 2.
It’s no shock that Brady would fight this to the end. He’s a fierce competitor, renowned for his ability to battle against difficult circumstances. Brady figures he can hang in and win it late, as he did all four of New England’s Super Bowl victories. Prevailing in the face of skeptics has been the story of his career, and maybe he will win this, too.
I’ve been a great admirer of Brady, and this controversy won’t change my belief that he’s the best quarterback of all time. But he seems a captive of his own competitive ego on this issue. He reminds me of the most deluded steroid users in baseball, who insisted they had done nothing wrong and seemed to have convinced themselves of their innocence.
According to NFL Media’s Judy Battista, the two parties discussed a deal that would reduce Brady’s suspension to one game and a fine of several game checks. But evidently, he wanted the records sealed and a settlement in which he would admit only to not cooperating with the original investigation, not ordering the deflating of footballs.
Goodell wasn’t interested, and you can’t blame him. The Wells report made a strong circumstantial case against Brady. Destroying a cell phone adds to the incriminating evidence. Most objective football fans, who don’t like Brady to begin with, believe he cheated and have no problem with Goodell playing hardball.
Brady has only himself to blame. He could have minimized the scandal after the AFC title game by admitting that he ordered his equipment men to keep the footballs at the lowest pressure allowed. If they went over the line one time, he could have put the blame on himself for putting them in a tough spot.
Maybe Brady was initially evasive because he was afraid Goodell wouldn’t let him play in the Super Bowl. It’s hard to imagine Goodell taking a player of Brady’s stature off the field for the nation’s ultimate sporting event, especially if Brady had offered some sort of contrition beforehand, no matter how modest.
Instead, Brady denied it all. Maybe we’ll never know the whole truth. But most people have made up their minds. If the courts tear apart the NFL and declare Brady innocent, his legacy will still be tainted. Did anyone change their opinion of Barry Bonds when obstruction of justice charges were overturned last week after 10 years?
Pats owner Robert Kraft was furious with the NFL for denying the appeal. Kraft had deferred to the league in hopes that Goodell would ease the punishment. He and Brady’s agent, Don Yee, said Goodell used the cell phone issue to deflect from suspicions that the evidence of deflated footballs wasn’t as compelling as originally thought.
There might be some truth to that. Still, Brady made it tougher on himself by failing to fully cooperate. We’re a forgiving society, as long as you own up to your mistakes. Fans have little sympathy for Brady now. People are laughing at him for his flimsy explanation about the cell phone.
Goodell knows public sentiment is on his side. He also has the power that comes with knowing that his league is more popular and lucrative than ever, despite the recent scandals. If it’s a fight Brady wants, Goodell is saying that the NFL is bigger than any one player, even the greatest quarterback of all time.