The NFL has been masterful in transforming itself into a 12-months-a-year commodity. From the Super Bowl to the combine, free agency, the draft, minicamps, training camps and exhibition games, barely a day goes by without football in the news.
Of course there’s a downside to being the center of attention every 24/7. Everyone is tuned in the moment scandals arise, whether they occur in casinos at night or championship games at halftime.
The latest drama follows the league’s line of gated embarrassments, from Spygate to Bountygate to Deflategate. Having the New England Patriots front-and-center for two of those three clouds ratchets up the interest level. Nothing like seeing one of sports’ premier franchises brought down a few notches, hoist by its own petard.
But here’s something else for the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell to fret about. Bountygate was found to be much ado about nothing and the same is true about Deflategate – though the league can’t afford to confess on the latter case.
Surely that’s why Goodell didn’t recuse himself Tuesday as Patriots quarterback Tom Brady appealed an outrageous four-game suspension for allegedly deflating footballs in the AFC title game against Indianapolis. After a new scientific analysis by the American Enterprise Institute took the air out of the NFL’s “proof” – a 243-page report with more than half devoted to faulty mathematical analysis of ball pressurization – Goodell had no choice but to stay in the judge’s seat.
Otherwise, he’d risk more embarrassment than he faces now, which seems humanly impossible.
No way he wants to go through another scenario like Bountygate in 2012. In that case, he brought the hammer against the New Orleans Saints, suspending several officials and players for a supposed bonus system based on injuring opponents between 2009 and 2011. The AEI investigated that matter, too, and found that the Saints ranked in the bottom three teams for injuring opposing players.
When the Saints players appealed, Goodell brought in former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue to rule on their cases.
If you look at Goodell closely, you might see traces of the slap marks. “For the reasons set forth in this decision,” Tagliabue said in a December 2012 statement, “I now vacate all discipline to be imposed upon these players.”
It’s easy to imagine a similar ruling on Brady if Goodell was righteous enough to allow an impartial arbiter.
But the commish has become a serial bungler, underperforming and overcompensating, drunk on his union-approved power. He put himself in a corner with the initial ruling to suspend Brady for a quarter of the season while fining the Patriots $1 million and docking them for a first-round pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017.
Team owner Bob Kraft caved and accepted the team’s sanctions, saying it was best for the league if the Patriots didn’t fight back. “What I’ve learned over the last two decades is that the heart and soul of the strength of the NFL is the partnership of 32 teams,” Kraft said during a news conference at the owners meetings in May. “What’s become very clear over those two decades is that at no time should the agenda of one team outweigh the collective good of the full 32.”
Unfortunately for Goodell, Brady isn’t a close, personal friend like Kraft. And Brady doesn’t enjoy a partnership with the other 31 teams and 1,700 players. He would be well within his rights to sue the NFL and bring it to its knees.
Brady’s two-pronged argument is simple and direct on both accounts: The pockmarked “evidence” in the Wells Report doesn’t prove that Brady violated any NFL rules and the four-game suspension is exceedingly harsh and unprecedented.
“I think we put in a very compelling case, union lawyer Jeffrey Kessler told reporters Tuesday after the 10-hour appeal hearing.
If Goodell doesn’t budge in rescinding or decreasing the suspension, Brady will have to decide how far to take the case. Meanwhile, the Patriots have to make contingency plans for training camp and possibly opening the season with No. 12 under center. New England has given up but that doesn’t mean Brady has to follow suit.
This is the perfect case – an NFL superstar punished based on a slipshod in-house investigation – for a federal lawsuit challenging Goodell’s disciplinary process, which careens wildly like a runaway tractor trailer. Just because the commish has all power, that doesn’t mean due process should be a casualty.
In any case, this slice of the NFL’s offseason program should continue for a while longer, providing an important lesson to the all-encompassing league.
Be careful what you strive for.