An awful lot of people were surprised when they heard that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was going to sit out four games after all.
As everyone who cares knows, Brady was suspended for four games last season by National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell for what the league believed was his role in using underinflated footballs during the 2015 American Football Conference championship game against the Indianapolis Colts, which the Patriots won 45-7. (Underinflated balls can be easier to throw and catch, especially in wet weather, which was the case in this game.)
Brady was not the only person punished by Goodell after the NFL’s investigation: Two equipment room attendants were suspended indefinitely, the team was fined $1 million, and two draft picks were taken away.
But only Tom Brady appealed, and in September, just a week before the Patriots’ first game of the season, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman overturned Goodell’s ruling, restoring Brady to the starting lineup for what turned out to be the entire 2015 season.
In turn, the NFL appealed that decision, according to Goodell, “in order to uphold the collectively bargained responsibility to protect the integrity of the game.”
And last Monday, in a 2-1 decision, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed Berman’s ruling, upholding Goodell’s use of power to discipline Brady: “[T]he Commissioner properly exercised his broad discretion under the collective bargaining agreement.”
Among those for whom the decision may have come as a surprise are Berman and Brady himself, who had no prepared responses. No one, though, seemed as surprised as the sports media.
After enough articles about “Deflategate” to constitute a light industry—most of them mocking Goodell—the media responded to the new and possibly final decision with subdued silence. A few got hysterical, such as ESPN Ian O’Connor’s “The Patriots and Tom Brady Have Suffered Enough” rant, but most outlets went with straight reporting of the decision and moved on.
If you followed this ridiculous “scandal,” it’s hard to feel sympathy for Brady, a man blessed with everything a professional athlete is supposed to want but who somehow may have found it necessary to cheat, then degrade his team and his sport by destroying evidence—including his cellphone during the NFL’s initial investigation—and then walking away from the fiasco with a smirk on his face.
Which is not to say that despite what seems to many of us obvious guilt, Brady hasn’t enjoyed a huge share of support from the media from the onset. USA Today’s Nancy Armour wrote in January that “Aside from the appeal that shut down the suspension and basically got Goodell and the NFL laughed out of court, the only defense Brady has of his reputation is his performance.”
Say what? Cheating is trumped (you’ll pardon the expression, but Tom Brady, after all, does play golf with the favorite candidate of David Duke) by touchdown passes? Does Armour need to be reminded that the Patriots were found guilty of deflating footballs and lost two draft picks, which will sting even more than the million-dollar penalty Goodell imposed? [The Patriots recovered one of the lost draft picks with a trade in the 2016 NFL Draft.] Whether the Patriots were guilty of deflating footballs remains in doubt: Owner Robert Kraft accepted the commissioner’s penalty but felt betrayed by Goodell. (By the way, that penalty kicked in this year’s draft.)
What was at stake in the appeal was not whether the Patriots cheated or how much effect cheating had on their victory over the Colts in the AFC championship game or even if it had any effect at all. At stake was the length of any suspension the commissioner would be allowed to impose on Brady (his original decision, let’s remember, was four games).
Let’s pause for a moment and recall that ESPN, among others, found evidence of cheating by the Patriots that extends back to the February 2002 Super Bowl against the St. Louis Rams, which was won by New England 20-17. ESPN later apologized to the Patriots for misstatements in that controversy. Still, over the years, a long trail of purported cheating by the Patriots has followed the team—including allegedly sending cameramen in disguise to steal opponents’ signals.
It hardly seems implausible that they would have shrunk from a relatively minor-league offense such as deflating footballs.
In any event, it would take someone with a greater sense of denial than Ted Cruz to believe that Brady was not involved in the deed.
The Patriots, after all, fired the two locker-room attendants who were alleged to have tampered with the balls, one of whom called himself “The Deflator.” (The NFL reinstated both employees, and the Patriots offered public support of them — but wouldn’t you like to know if they were paid substantially to keep silent about this whole affair?) It would require a suspension of disbelief larger than Brady’s ego to believe that the man who benefited the most from the “soft” balls knew nothing about it.
If nothing else, the 2nd Circuit’s decision should do away once and for all with the notion that Brady should be exonerated because the NFL’s own investigation produced no “proof” of Brady’s involvement.