The flames of Deflategate—the most ludicrously avoidable PR disaster in NFL history—are burning higher than ever today, because New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith all stubbornly failed to see reason. It was if they all could see the impending wreck, and did nothing to stop it.
On Tuesday, Goodell issued a 20-page decision upholding Brady's four-game suspension resulting from his alleged use of under-inflated balls during last year's AFC Championship game. It should have been the final chapter of this ridiculous saga.
Instead, after months of mind-numbing debate over errant media reports, a messy "independent" investigation, the Patriots' Reddit-esque rebuttal, Goodell's initial punishment and a marathon appeal session, the worst is yet to come. The NFLPA's withering public statement was the first salvo in what could be a months-long court battle to overturn the suspension.
Goodell's own conduct-policing fury fanned the flames: Not only was Brady accused of messing with the integrity of the game, the NFL's highest crime, the Patriots had a history of integrity-of-the-game infractions. Factor in rumored (and recently reported, then denied) pressure from other owners to give Brady no quarter, and Goodell was under tremendous pressure to throw the book at Brady.
Brady's refutation, defense and appeal of the accusations and punishments have been typically private. Yet a league source told the Washington Post's Mark Maske any negotiated settlement that could be construed as an admission of guilt would be "a significant move away from Brady's previous position." Reading between the lines, it seemed Brady would be okay with a fine for not capitulating to the league's subpoena-less discovery demands, but he would not accept missing any games for actually breaking the rules.
In other words, Brady wanted exoneration.
The essential part of a plea bargain is the guilty plea, the part where the accused admits guilt and shows remorse in exchange for a lesser sentence. Had Brady owned up and taken his medicine, he would likely have gotten a measly two games. Come September 21, we'd never have talked about any of this ever again.
Instead, Brady stuck to his guns. He was either delusional, or daring Goodell to double down.
The Wells report, as flawed as it was, proved Brady's guilt to the necessary standard as far as the collective bargaining agreement is concerned. Under that CBA, Goodell had absolute authority to levy and uphold a four-game suspension in this case.
That he did so isn't just a blind exercise of this power. The union, having ceded this authority in multiple CBA negotiating sessions, is now trying erode it at every opportunity, chipping away with arbitration and litigation. Between Brady's unwillingness to admit guilt, and the union's strong motivation to take this to court, Goodell had zero incentive to undermine his own authority.
"Back in May, I chose to make a difficult decision that I now regret," Patriots owner Bob Kraft told assembled media on Wednesday, according to Ben Volin of The Boston Globe. Kraft had meekly accepted Goodell's punishment for the franchise, expecting leniency for Brady in return. "I was wrong for putting my faith in the league." As Volin put it, Goodell's strongest friend and most powerful ally among the owners has now "declared war."
Now, we have a wreck in slow motion: Goodell has used his gavel—lest he lose it—to force Brady to either grit out the full four-game sentence or take it to court. The union will push for the latter, keeping the suspension hanging over Brady's (and the Patriots') head for weeks, if not months—despite there being little chance a judge will override a collectively bargained disciplinary process.
All three parties have collaborated to build a mountain of shame out of a sports-controversy molehill. Ball-doctoring has been around for as long as people have played ball sports; former NFL quarterbacks have come out en masse to say they did similar (or worse). The cheating in question didn't even affect the outcome of the blowout game in question.
This whole thing should have been wrapped up and done in a matter of weeks, and we should have spent the spring and summer talking about Brady and the Patriots' glorious Super Bowl triumph.
Instead, NFL fans are frozen in horror as this wholly avoidable disaster keeps playing out over unending months. Games will be lost, legacies will be tarnished and great achievements will again be overshadowed—all because the man driving the money train never knows when to hit the brakes.