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NFL commissioner Roger Goodell last week celebrated Tom Brady's retirement by hailing him as “an incredible competitor and leader” and noting “his stellar career is remarkable for its longevity” and “sustained excellence.”
Just seven years ago, Goodell and the NFL were using media allies to brand Brady as a cheater, wrongly suspending him after a federal court battle, and eventually ending and hiding the results of an experiment that would have all but cleared him of wrongdoing.
Deflategate remains one of the most bizarre scandals in NFL history, especially as time and the truth have continued to shift the malicious actions away from the inflation levels of New England's footballs in the AFC championship game played on Jan. 18, 2015.
It has increasingly become more of a story about a league office that was hell-bent on sticking to its accusations, even as evidence continued to show the NFL was wrong.
To this day, the NFL has almost nothing to say about what it did to no less than the most accomplished player in league history. No clarifications. No apologies. No restoration of New England’s lost first-round draft pick.
The propaganda campaign it waged against Brady was quite effective. No matter how many scientific studies, college lectures and documentaries have pointed toward not just Brady’s innocence, but the fact that the NFL never even proved the footballs in question were deflated, many fans still believe he’s a cheat.
It always raised a chilling question: If the NFL was willing to fight that hard to destroy the reputation of one of its most popular superstars, what won’t it do to crush a regular player or coach … or defend itself or one of its team owners?
The latest black eye for the league comes courtesy of the new book “Playmakers: How the NFL Really Works (And Doesn’t)” from Mike Florio, the founder of ProFootballTalk and a regular on NBC.
In one chapter, Florio resets the story of how NFL executives, notably vice president Troy Vincent, jumped to conclusions about the air pressure inside the Patriots' footballs at halftime of the AFC title game.
Vincent appeared unaware of Ideal Gas Law – which has been around since 1834 and regularly taught in high school science – that air pressure will rise and fall based on external temperatures. Instead, when some of the footballs were tested below the NFL minimum 12.5 pounds per square inch, malfeasance was assumed.
Everything spiraled from there.
Most damaging to Brady was a report from ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, citing an unnamed “league source,” that stated “11 of the New England Patriots' 12 game balls were inflated significantly below the NFL’s requirements.”
That framed the entire scandal. The “significantly below” part suggested this was outside of applicable science. It put Brady and the Patriots on their heels. The NFL refused to share the numbers, despite pleas from New England’s general counsel and Brady’s own agents.
Instead it sat out there for months, until the NFL finally released its “Wells Report” that concluded “it was more probable than not” that Brady was “at least generally aware” that air had been released from the Patriots' footballs. However, that same report also released the actual inflation numbers (crudely recorded and without scientific protocols). Scientists, professors and others immediately pounced and noted that the data actually showed the footballs weren’t “significantly” deflated.
In fact, based on the measurements of one of the two gauges used, 11 of the 12 Patriot footballs weren’t outside the predicted range of Ideal Gas Law at all. The other was slightly below.
For the scandal to exist, you’d have to believe someone dragged a bag of footballs into a bathroom so they could deflate one ball by 2.6 percent, a rate that is probably indecipherable to the human touch.
The NFL didn’t care. It just created a new scandal, leaking another story to ESPN that Brady had destroyed his cell phone. Another firestorm erupted that made the QB look guilty. Later it even misstated Brady's testimony to Goodell, but that’s a whole other story.
None of it should have mattered because of this: The NFL never proved the footballs were actually deflated in a scandal about deflated footballs. It’s like finding someone guilty for stealing a car when the car never left its owner’s possession.
As for Florio’s reporting, two details stand out. One, the source of the original “significantly deflated” football report that was patently untrue was none other than Troy Vincent.
Of course it was. After all, it was Vincent who looked foolish by starting this entire drama.
The second centers on an NFL initiative for the 2015 season to record the PSI levels of all footballs pregame, during halftime and postgame. It was like the NFL was trying to see if a nearly two-century-old scientific principle was actually true.
Well, it was. And so, as Florio reports, once the numbers started coming in exactly as predicted, and thus producing readings that would exonerate the Patriots, NFL general counsel Jeff Pash ordered the data to be deleted. And exactly why was a lawyer involved in this?
The league never released any data from its experiment, despite an NFL spokesman telling Yahoo Sports at the time that it would.
Florio’s reporting won’t change public perception of Brady as a cheater. Nor can he get the four games back in 2016 he served as part of a suspension. And the Patriots were stripped of a first-round draft pick over this nonsense.
But this scandal continues, and keeps making the NFL look worse, because the league refuses to do the right thing once and for all.
If Goodell wants to honor Tom Brady upon his retirement, then he should use Super Bowl week to apologize to him, admit the farce of Deflategate and try to help the league's greatest winner get a measure of his reputation back.
It’s never too late to do the right thing. Even for the NFL.