NEW YORK — They came early to catch a glimpse of the star quarterback and the commissioner who thinks the star quarterback cheated.
By 9 a.m., the sidewalk outside Daniel Patrick Moynihan Federal Courthouse was already filled with onlookers and football fans, even though New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and their legal teams weren’t due until 10:30.
DeflateGate, the nearly seven-months-long scandal prompted by accusations Brady ordered Patriots employees to let air out of footballs before last year’s AFC championship game, went to court Wednesday.
After nearly seven hours of discussions, no resolution was reached on the four-game suspension of Brady that Goodell has imposed and the quarterback wants overturned.
What the day lacked in news value, however, it made up for in entertainment. An entire city block effectively was shut down by a crowd that swelled as the day wore on, and a courthouse that has hosted cases involving accused terrorists, corrupt politicians and Ponzi schemers served as the stage for a drama over decidedly less serious subject matter.
At about 10:25 a.m. the doors to courtroom 17-B swung open, and in walked Goodell and the NFL’s legal team. A minute later came Brady and his much larger legal team, which included both his lawyers and the NFL players’ union’s lawyers. For more than two hours, the two starring figures in DeflateGate sat a few feet from each other, Goodell in the front row, Brady in the second row. They did not speak to each other. When Goodell looked over at one point, Brady stared straight ahead, stone-faced.
While one could argue this dispute is not worthy of the federal courts system, Judge Richard Berman certainly did not act like he felt that way. The 71-year-old jurist conducted Wednesday’s hearing seriously but affably, asking probing questions of each side that could have indicated what he views as weaknesses.
NFL lawyer Daniel Nash urged the judge to not wade into the disputed facts, but to only deal with the larger issue of whether Goodell is, according to the collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the NFL and the players’ union, the final arbiter on issues involving the integrity of the game.
But wade right into those disputed facts is just what Berman did. He even read aloud Brady’s statistics from the 45-7 win over the Colts on Jan. 18 as proof, he felt, that any competitive advantage of deflated footballs was questionable.
Berman’s most pointed questions for the NFL focused on what evidence proved Brady’s involvement in a conspiracy. While Berman noted his respect for Ted Wells, the attorney the NFL hired to investigate the case, the judge seemed confused by Wells’s conclusion that Brady was “at least generally aware of inappropriate activities” without any communications that explicitly showed Brady ordered Patriots employees to deflate balls.
“This DeflateGate, I’m not sure where the ‘gate’ is,” Berman said.
Nash pointed to texts in which Patriots employee Jim McNally referred to himself as “the Deflator” and joked about over-inflating footballs to punish Brady. Berman did not seem convinced.
When Berman’s attention turned to Brady and his lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, the judge focused on what he called “the big question.” How could it be possible that low-level Patriots employees would unilaterally decide to deflate footballs without the knowledge or consent of the quarterback?
Kessler was by far the most theatrical speaker of the day. He walked a small semi-circle behind the podium, waving his hands and pointing demonstratively as he argued.
Kessler refused to concede the balls had been deflated, but argued that, if they were, it was entirely possible Patriots employees acted on their own.
On the subject of a cellphone Brady had his assistant destroy, Kessler loudly exclaimed, “This is the most overblown issue in my 40-year history of litigating cases.”
As a celebrity, Kessler said, Brady routinely switches phones and destroys old ones to maintain privacy.
At about 12:45 p.m., Berman adjourned the public hearing and both sides headed into a private room to continue discussions. As they talked behind closed doors throughout the afternoon, the crowd outside surged and ebbed.
For some, the day presented a business opportunity. Nine people came wearing “DeflateGate hats” — foam creations that look like footballs punctured by air needles — they tried to sell.
“It’s the kind of hat you can have a good time in,” one hat-wearing man told a potential customer. “Only $35, shipping and handling included.”
Longtime courtroom artist Andrea Shepard also showed off her work — a portrait of the judge speaking while Goodell and Brady looked on. Shepard nicely captured Goodell’s pink hue as he scribbled in a notebook. Her rendition of Brady was emotionless.
(Shepard was not the artist whose disfigured interpretation of Brady went viral. Her drawing of Brady actually looked like Brady, and she spoke lovingly of his jawline.)
“I think they’re all upset, because they’re together,” Shepard said of the men.
Just after 5:15 p.m., three black SUVs pulled up in front of the courthouse. Brady exited, smiled as the crowd cheered and got in the car without saying a word. Ten minutes later, Goodell followed — to boos — and also remained silent as he stepped into his car. Both men walked right past a phalanx of television microphones that news stations had hopefully set up hours earlier for a post-hearing news conference that did not happen.
NFL players’ union chief DeMaurice Smith was the only person connected to the case to speak after, offering a brief summary of the day’s events that some in the crowd would likely dispute.
“It was a productive day,” Smith said.