I know insomniacs who do not turn over as often as Tom Brady’s suspension, but let’s examine the latest news for a moment. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has reinstated Brady’s suspension, which means he is now scheduled to miss the first four games of the 2016 season.
It looks like Roger Goodell won. He didn’t.
Victories are not just defined by court rulings. There are other things at stake here: Goodell’s standing with his players and his credibility with the public. Deflategate has now turned into a 20-month story, at minimum. Whatever you think of the Patriots, that is insane.
Goodell can, and surely will, talk about the principle here. He wanted to reinforce his collectively bargained right to do whatever he pleases. He can suspend players. They can appeal, but Goodell gets to decide the appeal. If he tells them to strip down to their underwear, give themselves paper cuts, bathe in salt water and watch Dora the Explorer for 17 straight days, then hey, that is his collectively bargained right.
It is still a mystery why the NFL Players Association agreed to turn player-discipline disputes into a game of one-on-one between a six-year-old and DeMarcus Cousins, but this is where we are.
So Goodell has that right. He always had it. That is why he suspended Brady in the first place, and why he stayed calm when that suspension was overturned. The NFL has lacked some things over the years (humility, credible doctors) but it is not short on lawyers. There is a reason Goodell stayed the course.
And yet in the bigger picture, he lost. This was all arrogant and unnecessary—and again, that is true regardless of how you feel about the Patriots.
Let’s imagine that Brady’s four-game suspension holds up this time. This is no guarantee—Brady can still go through 16 more courts, move the whole thing to the Hague, or hope to delay long enough that he gets pardoned by President Trump. But let’s go with it.
Tom Brady, the best player of his generation, has been suspended for four games, for something the league never proved he did.
That’s not good. But put yourself in Goodell’s spot for a moment. As SI and ESPN both laid out last September, the vast majority of the NFL does not trust the Patriots. This started with Spygate, which Goodell completely botched, but it went beyond that. Many powerful people in the NFL think the Patriots cheat. They wanted blood. As a pragmatic matter, Goodell had to give them some.
The solution for Goodell was so simple. After commissioning the Wells Report, he could have fined the Patriots $1 million and taken away a 2016 first-round pick and a 2017 fourth-round pick.
If this punishment sounds familiar, it should. I stole it right from Roger Goodell. That was part of his punishment for Deflategate. It is why there are 31 picks in the first round of this week’s Biggest NFL Draft Ever instead of 32.
That is a serious punishment by any standard except the one he imposed. If Goodell had left it at that, what would the various constituencies have said?
Anti-Patriots forces in the NFL would have wanted more—let’s face it, they always want more—but they would have to admit this was severe. The NFL has only taken away a first-round pick once before: for Spygate.
Patriots owners Robert and Jonathan Kraft would have been furious. But what could they do about it? They would have privately seethed, and they may have done an interview or two with friendly Boston media outlets to explain that people are just bitter about New England’s four Super Bowl titles and delicious clam chowder. But there was no way they would not have taken the league to court. They would have accepted the penalties as the cost of doing business in a league where business is very, very good.
Patriots fans would complain, but fans everywhere complain.
And this would have been over last spring. There would have been no court battle, no ugly public back and forth, and no ongoing discussion about whether the league was being fair to Brady.
As a bonus, there was a perfectly logical defense for this kind of decision. The Patriots had been caught cheating before, so they had lost the benefit of the doubt. And no matter what they say, there was evidence against them. Locker room attendant Jim McNally, who called himself “the Deflator,” illegally took the balls into a bathroom before the 2015 AFC Championship Game, then denied taking them into the bathroom, then admitted he did but said he used the urinal. There is no urinal. There was more, but I’ve already gotten to the urinal part, which is my favorite. So let’s just move on.
What Goodell did not have was much evidence against Tom Brady. Sure, a reasonable person could surmise that if the Patriots deflated footballs, Brady approved it, and may even have requested it. But you don't suspend people based on what you surmise. So many of the arguments against Brady were specious. He gave memorabilia to the perpetrators as a bribe (even though every star gives memorabilia to co-workers). He spent an unusual amount of time talking to equipment assistant John Jastremski after the story broke, a sign of a cover-up (even though Brady may have just been checking on a guy who was not used to being in the middle of a media storm.)
Once again, forget what you think of the Patriots. If you think they are guilty and Brady was the prime culprit, forget that. If you think the Ideal Gas Law proves this was all nonsense, forget that, too.
Goodell felt like he had to do something. The solution was right there for him. He could have said he didn’t know who ordered the deflation, so he was not going to punish any individuals, but he had come down harshly on the team. And that would have been the end of that.
Instead, this story keeps going and going. Goodell wins in court, but he did not win. The Patriots obviously did not win either. The rest of the league didn’t even really win, because the Patriots kept winning games and this story has made the whole league look silly. When the story of Deflategate is finally, mercifully told, there will be only two groups of people who really won: Lawyers, and sports commentators.