Roger Goodell's manipulation of Tom Brady's testimony leaves NFL on slippery slope

Columnist
Yahoo Sports

At this point it's fair to say the NFL was immediately convinced the New England Patriots deflated footballs in the AFC championship game and then worked backward with great diligence and, at times, great duplicity to conclude it as true.

The NFL mostly failed, although that doesn't guarantee the Patriots are innocent. New England very well might have deflated the footballs. There was, and there remains, plenty of suspicious acts that demand questioning after a guy nicknamed the Deflator took the footballs into the bathroom just before kickoff. It's just the league has never proven its case.

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No matter where you stand on the guilt or innocence of Tom Brady, et al, the actions of the league office grow more disconcerting and indefensible by the day, especially after Thursday's release of testimony and documents from Brady's appeal of his four-game suspension.

There is a laundry list of concerns here, starting with the fact no one in the league office knew footballs could naturally deflate. This ignorance lit the fuse of a scandal that is still burning. The NFL was prone to wrongly conclude that any measurement under 12.5 pounds per square inch was an act of cheating.

From there, pretty much every single action, conclusion or determination was designed to find a path to that original belief of guilt.

With the flaws in the Deflategate investigation, can teams, players and fans still trust Roger Goodell? (AP)
With the flaws in the Deflategate investigation, can teams, players and fans still trust Roger Goodell? (AP)

But this is about focusing on one curiously inconsistent point because going over all of them would take an entire book.

So let's look at Roger Goodell's conclusion that conversations between Brady and Patriots staffer John Jastremski after the news of the scandal broke are proof that Jastremski was running a cheating operation and Brady either knew about it, tried to cover it up or both.

Goodell and his investigator, Ted Wells, were obsessed with the fact Brady and Jastremski had not texted or spoken on the phone for six months until the morning after the AFC championship game, when news hit the league was investigating the Patriots' footballs.

Then the two started communicating, numerous times over the next few days, including a face-to-face meeting in the quarterbacks room in Gillette Stadium.

To the NFL, this was proof of guilt.

That alone was dubious. Why would Brady and Jastremski be automatically guilty for talking after they were suddenly in the middle of a massive scandal and media firestorm?

With the presumption of innocence, or even impartiality, their actions are quite understandable.

Once accused of playing with under-inflated footballs, of course Brady would want to find out what the heck was going on and talk to Jastremski. And of course Jastremski would want to profess his innocence – especially if he was really innocent – or theorize with Brady about how such a thing could occur.

It would have been far more incriminating if Brady and Jastremski never spoke.

Both Wells and Goodell, for instance, saw no issue in Patriots coach Bill Belichick, upon hearing the news, going to Brady and asking if he knew anything about the footballs. It's completely natural. So not with Brady?

Furthermore, after the first conversation between Brady and Jastremski, all other communication came under false pretenses. By late Monday morning the NFL had wrongly told the Patriots that their footballs were deflated as low as 10.1 psi – which put the organization on its heels because it was such a significant reduction.

Hearing such data from the league office would certainly cause Brady and Jastremski to revisit the situation. Let's say Jastremski said early Monday morning he didn't do it, doubted anyone did and couldn't even believe this occurred – something both Brady and Jastremski said occurred.

Then the NFL put out the false 10.1 psi number. Of course Brady would call back and say, "Well, this is what the NFL found, something must have happened. What's the story?"

Then later, ESPN, citing league sources, reported that 11 of the 12 Patriots footballs were two pounds or more below the league standard. It was also completely wrong but no one in New England knew that at the time so this looked terrible. Again, Brady would reasonably want to ask more questions.

The NFL instead said the daily discussions were proof of guilt.

Tom Brady passes during an NFL football training camp on Aug. 1. (AP)
Tom Brady passes during an NFL football training camp on Aug. 1. (AP)

So the league created fake duress for Brady via false evidence and then found him guilty for reacting to it in an understandable fashion. This is a rather aggressive interrogation tactic generally reserved for murder investigations, terrorist questionings and "Law & Order" reruns. It isn't how anyone would normally expect the league office to act when trying to determine the inflation levels of footballs.

Brady, in his testimony, said the reports – again, erroneously made up, possibly leaked and never corrected by the NFL – framed their discussions.

Here's one answer when asked about what was discussed during one conversation, why it was discussed and why he was even talking to Jastremski.

"[Jastremski] was the person that prepared the footballs and like I said, the initial report was that none of the Colts' balls were deflated, but the Patriots', all the Patriots' balls were," Brady testified. "So I was trying to figure out what happened. [It] was certainly my concern [to attempt] to figure out, you know, what could be – possibly could have happened to those balls."

Does this seem reasonable? Or proof of overwhelming guilt?

Actually, don't bother answering because it gets far worse for the league office.

Goodell manages to not just ignore that as reasonable but in making his decision completely misrepresents Brady's appeal testimony.

When Goodell released his 20-page appeal denial, the NFL was under the impression that all testimony and documents would remain sealed. Brady's lawyer, Jeffrey Kessler, wanted it available for fans to read. The NFL got its way. However, a federal judge ruled nothing should be under seal and suddenly it all came out.

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So now we can see the contrast in how Goodell characterized Brady's testimony and the actual testimony. Here is how Goodell saw it, and, in the process, characterized what Brady said he and Jastremski discussed.

"The sharp contrast between the almost complete absence of communications through the AFC championship game undermines any suggestion during the three days following the AFC championship game that the communications addressed ONLY [emphasis added] preparation of footballs for the Super Bowl rather than the tampering allegations and their anticipated responses to inquiries about the tampering," Goodell wrote.

Only? Wait, Brady and Jastremski ONLY discussed the preparation of the footballs for the Super Bowl?

That certainly could undermine things. It would be incredibly suspicious, incriminating even, if Brady claimed that in the midst of this growing scandal, he and Jastremski spoke repeatedly but ONLY about preparing footballs for the Super Bowl. No one would believe that.

Which is perhaps why Goodell wrote it as such.

Like many things from the NFL in this scandal, it's completely incorrect (and actually contradicted within other portions and footnotes of Goodell's own ruling, not to mention the Wells Report). With the release of the transcript, though, the commissioner's claims have misrepresented the evidence.

The Patriots' fight with the NFL got a lot nastier with the release of Tom Brady's emails. (AP)
The Patriots' fight with the NFL got a lot nastier with the release of Tom Brady's emails. (AP)

While it is true Brady didn't offer any specifics of those discussions, it is also true that when being questioned under oath people are coached to never be too specific. Goodell and his team of lawyers fully understand this and even a modicum of fairness would require sympathy to the circumstance.

Besides, Brady was specific enough – certainly specific enough that it's a complete lie to claim he said he and Jastremski ONLY discussed preparing the footballs for the Super Bowl. Brady repeatedly answered the opposite. Here are a couple of examples to go with the one above:

"I don't remember exactly what we discussed," Brady said. "But like I said, there was two things that were happening. One was the allegations which we were facing and the second was getting ready for the Super Bowl, which both of those have never happened before [Jastremski wasn't in charge of the footballs at prior Super Bowls, and there was no scandal brewing]. So me talking to him about those things that were unprecedented, you know, he was the person that I would be communicating with."

And:

"I don't remember exactly what we talked about," Brady said. "But like I said, there were two things happening simultaneously and I really wanted John focused other than what he needed to get accomplished with the footballs, so I was trying to make sure that he was good and that, you know, he felt responsible for, you know, the attacks. And I was trying to make sure that he was composed so that he could do his job over the course of the next two weeks."

Brady also testified that he directly asked Jastremski if he deflated the footballs or knew anything about it – Jastremski said no every single time. Jastremski told the Wells investigators the same thing. Brady also explained, often repeatedly, that he wanted to make sure Jastremski was mentally focused on the Super Bowl when 100 footballs need to be prepared, among other tasks. He also said he texted and spoke to him to make him feel better as the world collapsed around him.

While preparing for the Super Bowl was a primary concern – is that surprising? – Brady couldn't have been more clear that other topics were broached, including the scandal, and that they didn't ONLY discuss football prep for the Seattle game.

All of this was said under oath directly in front of Roger Goodell.

Forget guilt and innocence, is there any reasonable way that Roger Goodell could hear all of that – spend five weeks reviewing the evidence, including the transcript and despite being surrounded by high-priced attorneys and public-relations consultants – and then still write that Brady ONLY discussed preparing footballs for the Super Bowl and as such is untruthful and guilty?

Is that a fair and accurate portrayal of what Brady testified? Is that even remotely reasonable? Or is it just an attempt to make Brady appear guilty and thus continue months of conduct that appear designed to justify the original suspicion.

Perhaps more importantly, how does anyone in the NFL – owner, coach, player or fan – possibly trust the league office to investigate and rule on anything ever again?

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