PHOENIX -- This isn't exactly news, but the NFL has a bit of a public relations problem these days. The league is still smarting from the ways in which the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals were handled and mishandled, and the Deflategate controversy that emerged after the New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game was the worst news possible to an NFL head office that fervently hoped the Super Bowl hype would wash away a season of bad headlines.
It wasn't so much that the Patriots allegedly went outside the rules to alter game balls in ways that would be preferable to Tom Brady -- the league said it would investigate, and it's started that process. But the general public distrust of any administrative process involving Roger Goodell informed the league that it better handle this one right.
Or, that was the general idea. On Sunday, Brady told ESPN's Chris Berman that a week after Indianapolis newsman Bob Kravitz broke the news about the deflated balls, the league had not yet talked to the star quarterback as part of its ongoing investigation.
"No, no. I believe they're going to do that after the season, so we'll deal with it after this game," Brady said. "I think everybody's locked in, ready to go for this Super Bowl. It's a great opportunity for us, you know, and our guys have worked really hard, so hopefully we can go out there and play our best on Sunday."
A few hours prior, during the Seattle Seahawks' first media session of Super Bowl week, cornerback Richard Sherman made it clear that he didn't believe the league would do anything about the deflation uproar because Goodell is too close with Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
"I think perception is reality," the loquacious cornerback said. "It is what it is. Their résumé speaks for itself. You talk about getting close to the line, this and that. I don’t really have a comment about that. Their past is what their past is. Their present is what their present is. Will they be punished? Probably not. Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all."
The NFL can't shoot down criticisms like Sherman's in any credible sense, because the league and Goodell have earned their perceptions as out of touch at best and blatantly deceptive at worst.
It's easy enough to argue that if the NFL was truly on Kraft's side in an improper way, it wouldn't have come down so hard on Spygate. That may be true, but it's also worth remembering that the Spygate punishment could have been much, much worse. When Goodell brought the hammer of the gods down on the New Orleans Saints in the wake of the BountyGate scandal, head coach Sean Payton was suspended for an entire season, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams was suspended indefinitely, general manager Mickey Loomis was suspended eight games, assistant coach Joe Vitt was suspended six games and four players -- linebacker Jonathan Vilma, defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, defensive end Will Smith and linebacker Scott Fujita -- were also suspended. The Saints were also fined $500,000 and lost two draft picks.
In contrast, the Patriots lost a first-round pick and a total of $750,000 in fine money. You can argue the ethics of spying on one's opponent versus trying to physically take one's opponent out of the game, but the Saints' punishments were almost universally castigated before they were later condemned and overturned in an independent investigation by former commissioner Paul Tagliabue. The Patriots' punishments were far more in line with a reasonable conclusion.
On Monday, a story written by Gabriel Sherman for GQ dropped several revelations about Kraft's close relationship with Goodell, especially as it pertained to the handling of the Ray Rice fallout, didn't put the league in a positive light. Sherman writes that in the days following the release of the Ray Rice elevator tape, Kraft talked with Goodell and asked him to appear in an interview on CBS News, after Kraft and CBS president Les Moonves had discussed the situation.
The two men spoke often, but this call was urgent: In roughly forty-eight hours, CBS was set to air the first of eight Thursday Night Football games (for which the network reportedly paid about $250 million), and the game featured the Ravens. Kraft and Moonves agreed that Goodell needed to appear on CBS News and answer questions. The questioner, Moonves added, should be a woman.
Goodell rarely went out front to face tough interviews. But Kraft was one of Goodell's closest confidants among the NFL's thirty-two owners, and his fiercest advocate and defender. As a member of the league's compensation committee, Kraft has vigorously defended Goodell's eye-popping $44 million pay package, and in the wake of the TMZ leak, he personally called owners and lobbied them to issue statements backing the commissioner, according to a senior league source. So large is Kraft's sway with Goodell that one veteran NFL executive likes to call him "the assistant commissioner."
Goodell's appearance on CBS, in which he was questioned by Norah O'Donnell and insisted that he had not seen the full video of Rice assaulting his then-fiancée until TMZ had released it to the public, was another disaster. Goodell's truthfulness was questioned by several reports, and he eventually had to hold a press conference admitting that the league had blown the investigation.
When the league then assigned former FBI director Robert Mueller to launch what it called an independent investigation, Mueller's ties to the WilmerHale law firm scuttled the credibility of that effort at transparency. Ravens president Dick Cass once worked for WilmerHale, and the firm was involved in the league's negotiations with DirecTV on at least one occasion. When the Mueller Report came out and failed to find Goodell and the NFL guilty of any serious wrongdoing, nobody was surprised because everybody assumed that the game was rigged from the start.
On Monday evening, Kraft addressed the allegations and league investigation, saying that he expected and hoped the NFL would "apologize to our entire team, and in particular, coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure in the last week."
It's also possible that the league has already apologized for the inconvenience of an investigation by delaying the process to ensure minimal distractions during Super Bowl week. The fact that people are asking these questions as a matter of course is a big part of the problem.
Just as the heat on the NFL this fall was about more than how Ray Rice was eventually punished, in the past week the criticism has been about more than how the league handles the idea that one of the two Super Bowl teams may have illegally altered footballs on its way to the NFL's biggest game. It's about the fact that whenever Roger Goodell speaks to the league's integrity, his audience's first response is to look for the hidden truth behind the words.
And even more damaging to the NFL, the lasting legacy of these controversies is that the hidden truth is generally easy to find. That's what Richard Sherman was talking about on Sunday, and in a larger sense, he was speaking for a lot of people who have lost faith in Goodell's stewardship.