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Deflate-gate was a case born of ignorance and lost through arrogance.
There was so much arrogance that Roger Goodell was sitting there in April – after New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft conceded defeat, two draft picks, a million bucks and incalculable prestige – and the commissioner still couldn't resist pushing for more.
A pound of Patriots flesh wasn't enough. He had to get one from Tom Brady too, and, now, after getting slapped around Thursday by U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman, it's Goodell who is the one walking out of here wounded and Brady gliding into the season as some kind of unsuspended martyr.
Oh, Roger had it all in his hands back in May. Kraft magnanimously/foolishly dropped the threat of litigation for the good of the NFL. He accepted the Wells report as fact, indefinitely suspended two locker room attendants and was just going to hope time heals all reputations. It was a terrible move; one Kraft himself has admitted was a mistake and even apologized for.
All Goodell had to do was the gentlemanly thing, the thing Kraft expected, and that was make a global settlement offer that included dropping Brady's conclusion of guilt and four-game suspension. It would have quickly and effectively ended the quarterback's appeal and further discovery into the NFL's conduct in the case.
The NFL machine had won, beaten even the mighty Patriots in a battle that was more about public relations than the actual facts around whether the footballs were tampered with during the AFC championship game. Public perception had been flooded by false, yet highly prejudicial stories that the NFL refused to correct, a narrative that made it almost impossible for the Patriots to fight back.
The Wells report was still believed to be "independent" because at that point no one knew that the NFL's general counsel had actually edited it, meaning it wasn't independent at all. Rival owners, fans and players were united.
[Related: Fall guy won't be Roger Goodell]
Goodell was going down in history as the victor, refusing to play favorites even with his favorite owner. All those that were screaming about the flaws in the Wells report would have been dismissed with Pat the Patriot logoed tin foil hats.
Goodell's NFL, however, has the tact of a falling safe, a strange cowboy culture where it must push for every last drop of blood, no matter how imprudent it is to continue the battle.
This is how the whole thing started, after all.
Troy Vincent, the NFL's executive vice president of football operations, didn't know anything about Ideal Gas Law back on Jan. 19. As such, the investigation into how footballs became deflated during the AFC championship game in January between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts began with the belief that any football measured that night below 12.5 PSI was a sign of purposeful cheating, rather than natural deflation. And any number that was well below 12.5 – say in the 11s – must therefore be the result of a big, grand conspiracy.
That belief framed everything else. New England was running a scheme and the NFL gumshoes would prove it.
Only once they learned otherwise, once they found out that a ball can, quite naturally, be measured at 11.5, or that protocol after that game had two pumps with varying measurements that made the entire experiment worthless, or noted that no one ever cared about ball inflation levels before this and the rulebook was indifferent, or thought hard after none of the equipment guys cracked, or when no firm evidence was uncovered, or when there was nothing tying Brady to the possible deflations that night, they should've backed down.
A smart league office would have acted like a smart district attorney and expressed frustration at the lousy facts and poor police work and simply declined to prosecute because the case was weak. It happens.
There are plenty of suspicious things about the footballs that night, enough to look, enough to wonder, even still. There wasn't enough to prove guilt though.
And that's the big difference.
Instead the league tried to bulldoze along. It was enough to get Kraft to quit. It was time for Goodell to take a knee.
Instead he went after Brady, and forever and ever Roger Goodell is going to regret picking that fight.
Misread the tailored suits and furry Uggs and styled haircuts at your own peril. The guy is tough.
Tom Brady wouldn't quit, wouldn't rattle, wouldn't back down.
Tom Brady wouldn't concede an inch and thus, by bringing in the lawyers, by bringing in the brilliant Jeffrey Kessler, he was able to get the whole ball of nonsense into Richard M. Berman's court of law, a place that lives far from riotous cable television debate shows and Internet message boards.
Brady's appeal hearing with the NFL had been a complete farce, so outrageous that Goodell himself misrepresented Brady's own testimony in his decision, finding him guilty of something he never even said. Comparative punishments were invented, levels of guilt shifted, basic fairness was trampled upon.
By taking on Brady, Goodell allowed Kessler to begin shooting holes not just in the Wells report, but in the kangaroo court that the NFL calls a disciplinary process. With Berman involved, the NFL was no longer able to seal testimony or control the narrative. From that point forward, not a single good thing happened for the league, as suddenly it was Goodell and the NFL on trial.
From the start, almost anyone who was paying attention, anyone who was reading through all the documents and considering all the actions of the league, saw the duplicity involved here was astounding.
You could always keep going back to Square One: Forget about reports of 11 of 12 footballs, the truth was and always has been that the league has no idea if the footballs were even unnaturally deflated in a scandal about unnaturally deflated footballs. Even the Wells report – buried deep, but still – essentially says as much.
The league first decided there was a scandal when there may not have been, then determined there was guilt in said scandal when there may not have been and then worked backward by any means necessary until that work caused a judge to call out the league.
Judge Berman didn't declare Brady innocent on Thursday; he declared the NFL guilty of violating federal law in trying to declare Brady guilty.
For instance, there is no written notice, or precedent of any kind, that a player can be suspended for being "generally aware" of someone else's actions. And Goodell couldn't just arbitrarily make up the corollary that being generally aware of someone else's equipment violation was akin to getting busted for performance-enhancing drugs.
Per NFL rules, even if Brady was guilty he should have only faced a $5,512 fine, the judge said, not a quarter-season suspension.
It was further wrong of Goodell to prohibit Brady from asking questions of NFL counsel Jeff Pash simply because Goodell himself pre-determined Pash's testimony would be "cumulative." How would Goodell know what Pash was going to say? And how arrogant is the NFL that it thinks it can just suppress a witness?
"[Due to Pash's] designation as co-lead investigator with Ted Wells, it is logical that he could have valuable insight into the course and outcome of the Investigation …," Berman aptly noted.
How about that the NFL was obligated to share evidence, a concept so basic and intrinsic and obvious that it was an actual punch line in "My Cousin Vinny."
"It's called disclosure," Mona Lisa Vito, Bill Belichick's favorite character, says, mocking Vinny's legal education.
"Fundamentally unfair," is how Berman put it in his decision.
(Let's a take a second here to note that the NFL lost a case in which it was outraged over Brady's supposed lack of cooperation and unwillingness to hand over evidence, in part because it was uncooperative and unwilling to hand over evidence. Seriously.)
Berman decided that Goodell also couldn't, during an appeals hearing, re-rule on the league's own original decision and determine new levels of guilt for Brady just because he felt like it. Gee, you think?
There was so much here that showed how the NFL, because it went after a speeding ticket like a homicide case, kept acting progressively more desperate as everything crumbled around it.
Yet none of it reaches the cool, considered environs of a federal courtroom if Goodell had just let Brady walk.
And then, even when it does get to Judge Berman, and he is so confrontational with the league that he sounds like a co-defense counsel, the NFL still refused to make any meaningful movement on a deal with Brady. It was the league's final failure to comprehend the cliff it was driving off.
The league is living in a bubble in which it doesn't matter what's real, it's all about what it can get people to believe is real, including its owners.
Just this week a smart guy named Bob McNair, who happens to own the Houston Texans, sounded stupid when he publicly carried Goodell's water for him in a radio interview. How long do these billionaires want to keep doing that? That's the $44 million-per-year question.
What will it take for the league to revamp its disciplinary process into one that is more equitable and transparent and credible? When does it realize what even the NCAA has realized: Being the bully isn't good for business.
If you paid close enough attention, deflate-gate was a giant circle of nonsense. The NFL banked on almost no one paying close attention.
Yet Goodell, by taking on Brady, all but assured it would wind up on the desk of someone paying extremely close attention: a learned, intelligent, federal judge.
It was ignorance of Ideal Gas Law that got this started. It was arrogance about how a fair mind would rule that ended it.
So Tom Brady plays in Foxborough next Thursday. And a rattled and embattled Roger Goodell has to stay home and watch on TV.
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