If you’re playing catch up, or just trying to discern facts from — forgive us — hot air, here’s everything you need to know about the scandal-turned-circus that is DeflateGate and the ensuing fallout.
How did this mess get started?
Back when we were younger and more sane, there was a blowout that was otherwise known as the 2015 AFC Championship Game. Tom Brady and the Patriots eviscerated the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, to advance to the Super Bowl. But a pregame tip by the Colts to the NFL suggested the Patriots had been using under-inflated footballs, a violation of league rules. A halftime inspection found 11 of those footballs to be under the required 12.5 pounds-per-square-inch threshold. That revelation led to an investigation by league-appointed attorney Ted Wells into the handling of Brady’s balls and ignited an endless string of jokes and back page headlines that confirmed we all have the sense of humor of a third-grader.
Key reading: DeflateGate controversy eclipses Super Bowl hype
So, all of this is about a little bit of air? Why is that such a big deal?
Underinflated balls do offer an advantage on the field as they’re easier to grip and also lighter, which can help with arm fatigue. That said, it’s comparable to a hitter using too much pine tar on a bat in a baseball game. Does it help with your grip? Sure, but you still have to hit the 99 mph fastball when the pitcher throws it.
Still, a rule’s a rule, so the question became how the psi fell below the legal limit. Brady denied involvement. The Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick blamed cold weather and provided a news conference that may have been scripted by Mr. Wizard. Bill Nye the Science Guy got involved. But ultimately the Wells investigation deemed it more likely than not that the Patriots were illegally doctoring their footballs and that Brady was “generally aware” of the practice. The report did not explicitly prove Brady’s guilt though, and a subsequent study by the American Enterprise Institute on ball pressure suggested the report’s method of evaluating the Patriots’ game balls was flawed.
More important than Brady’s alleged role in altering the footballs was his lack of cooperation with the investigation. The NFL’s collective bargaining agreement requires players to cooperate with all investigations, but Brady refused to turn over his cell phone and it was later revealed that he had an assistant destroy the phone before meeting with investigators. That, as much as the actual rules violation, is what the NFL is punishing.
The fact that it was the Patriots also matters a great deal, as they have been previously punished by the league for illegally attempting to gain on-field advantages by videotaping opposing coaches’ signals, a scandal known as Spygate. This latest black mark just added to the team’s reputation as a franchise with tremendous achievements but frequently viewed suspicion.
And the profile of both the Patriots and Brady as one of the NFL’s most decorated teams and players raises the interest level in this case as well. The vehement denial and ensuing challenge from the Patriots and Brady towards a league facing significant questions about its discipline system have only fanned the flames.
Key reading: Patriots, Brady punished for DeflateGate
Doesn’t the NFL’s penalty seem pretty harsh considering some of the past suspensions the league has issued? Doesn’t that make make the NFL look kind of foolish?
At first glance, the punishment sure doesn’t seem to fit the crime. But the league views this trespass as an attack on the integrity of the game and the Patriots as a repeat violator. And again it is punishing Brady’s non-compliance with the investigation.
After a trying season in which the NFL demonstrated remarkable marksmanship when aiming at its own feet, botching domestic violence-related suspensions for Ray Rice (first a too-short two-game ban then an indefinite ban that was overturned by a judge for being too harsh), Adrian Peterson (similarly overturned by a judge) and Greg Hardy (10 games, which was reduced to four by an arbitrator), the league was already vulnerable to scrutiny. The fact it leveled a four-game suspension against Brady and a $1 million, two-draft pick penalty at the Patriots for what most people outside the sport see as a minor violation that had zero impact on a 38-point blowout has not helped.
Key reading: The NFL’s shattered disciplinary system
What happens now? Does Brady have any chance to get the suspension overturned in court and start Week 1 of the 2015 season?
Brady and the NFLPA will fight the NFL’s decision, filing a legal challenge that will be heard in Manhattan. Additionally, Brady will likely seek an injunction against the league. If that is granted, he will be eligible to continue playing while his case is adjudicated, which means he could be available to the Patriots when their season begins Thursday, Sept. 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Getting the suspension overturned or shortened will likely be very tough, however. The judge that hears the case will not be weighing whether or not Brady was involved in DeflateGate, but rather whether the NFL followed the proper disciplinary system when doling out the suspension. The NFL and its players are governed by a collective bargaining agreement. That CBA states fairly explicitly that the players agree to accept the league’s discipline system in which Goodell hears and rules on player appeals. As mentioned earlier, it also specifies players must cooperate with investigations, which will be tough for Brady to argue after he reportedly destroyed his cell phone rather than turn it over as evidence during the Wells investigation.
While Rice, Peterson and Hardy all had their suspensions overturned or shortened in court, the basis of their argument stemmed from the NFL’s on-the-fly reworking of its personal conduct policy. The judges in those cases saw the NFL’s attempts as illegal based upon what was laid out in the CBA. However, in Brady’s case what’s laid out in the CBA is pretty much exactly how the NFL proceeded, meaning it will likely require a judge to overrule the CBA, which is extremely rare.
Does Brady have a chance? Sure. But the odds are definitely against him.
Key reading: Legal experts deem Brady’s lawsuit a long shot
If Brady loses in court and can’t get an injunction, what then?
Then the world will meet Jimmy Garoppolo, the Patriots’ backup quarterback and the heir apparent to Brady after the four-time Super Bowl winner finally retires. Garoppolo was a second-round pick out of Eastern Illinois University in the 2014 draft. When the Patriots stumbled and Brady struggled early last season, there was some talk that New England should give him the keys to the offense sooner rather than later. That obviously dissipated, though Garoppolo completed 19 of 27 passes with a touchdown in six games last season, mostly in mop-up duty.
If the suspension remains at four games, Brady would return to action October 18 against an all-too-fitting foe — the Indianapolis Colts.
Key reading: Assessing Brady’s heir apparent