Deflategate has always been an inverted scandal. The real attack on the integrity of the game came not from the New England Patriots, but from the NFL commissioner. The real cheat wasn’t Tom Brady, but rather Roger Goodell. The real verdict is that Brady’s Hall of Fame career is unaffected, while Goodell will go down in history as a ruined figure.
Brady will serve an arbitrarily issued four-game suspension to open the season because that’s what is best for his team: It’s smarter to go to training camp next week without any lingering uncertainty or risk of missing crucial late-season games. No doubt it’s easier for Brady to accept because by now he knows that in practical terms and the court of public opinion, he won. Zero evidence showed he ordered anyone to deflate footballs in the 2015 AFC Championship game, and a legion of scientists proved what anyone with a car already knew — that cold weather causes air pressure to drop in footballs the same as it does in your tires. A seventh grader’s schoolboy experiment made fools of Goodell and his underlings in the league office.
Brady’s suspension will be an asterisk, and it may even help the Patriots, since they get to develop his backup Jimmy Garoppolo. In the long run no one will treat seriously the idea that Brady cheated to win, except the embittered fans of opposing teams who always questioned his character and will continue to do so with no more or less energy than before. The bottom line on his legacy is already set: He’s made six trips to the Super Bowl in just 14 seasons, winning four rings.
The real consequences are for Goodell. Deflategate was his defining moment in history, and it firmly established him as a political bungler and a dunce. His reputation won’t recover. Think about it. Who will ever believe Goodell, on any subject, ever again? Why would anyone listen to him or trust his competence on any matter?
From the start, Goodell acted rashly. He leaped to a conclusion of predetermined guilt without due diligence, and when he was embarrassed by the simple reality of the Ideal Gas Law, he behaved deviously, skewing and misstating facts and testimony. In persecuting Brady for “conduct detrimental,” he himself performed in a way that completely undermined the public trust in the commissioner’s office.
A commissioner who was fit for the job would have ended Deflategate within a week. He would have announced that there was no way to fairly evaluate “the preponderance of the evidence” because the NFL’s protocols for handling game balls were so lax that officials had failed to record the inflation measurements in pregame. He would have released the ball-inflation psi data the league collected this season that no doubt shows the effect of weather. Instead Goodell acted secretively and politically. He chose to pursue a bad case as a referendum on his hanging-judge authority. Shamed and reversed on so many mishandled issues, from Bountygate to the Ray Rice domestic violence case, he needed a win more than he wanted to do right. He turned the commissioner’s office into a sandhill.
The supreme irony here is that what was most important to Goodell, his image, has been destroyed. What was second-most important to him, his power, has been severely undermined. Though he won a technical victory when four judges split on whether he acted properly as an arbitrator, in reality he is a fatally weakened commissioner. He may cling to his job title for a while longer, because vain NFL owners don’t like to admit mistakes, but it’s clear they regard Goodell as a liability who needs help. Last summer he was divested of significant responsibility when Tod Leiweke was named chief operating officer of the league, filling a post Goodell had left vacant since his promotion in 2006. The league also hired former White House press secretary Joe Lockhart as vice president of communications, to further cushion Goodell. Lockhart reports to Leiweke.
The owners will be cleaning up the mess Goodell has made for some time. His long-term legacy is as the worst commissioner in the history of the league. His short-term legacy is that he’s brought league business to a halt, made it impossible to make progress on a range of important issues because the players union doesn’t regard him as an honest broker. The league needs the cooperation of the players on everything from expanded playoffs, to a 18-game season, to stadium credits, to proposed changes to off-season workouts. Good luck. Does John Mara really think the union will agree to anything with Roger Goodell?
All of these things will be stickier to resolve, and so will the slow walk to a new labor contract in 2021. Labor negotiations are always a morass, but with Goodell you can count on them to be especially problematic. Real power is not the martinet ability to hit a player with a draconian suspension; real power is the political capital to gets deals done on things the owners have publicly said they want. Pete Rozelle understood that, and so did Paul Tagliabue. Goodell has no capital. He has no leverage or strength. He spent it all on petty abuses.
Goodell has made just one statement in response since Brady decided to drop his appeal and serve the suspension. It came Monday night, and it was a ludicrous but telling one. “We moved on from that as a league quite a long time ago,” he said. That was the sound of 32 owners telling him, “Shut up, Roger.”