At a news conference the day after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the four-game suspension of Tom Brady, Patriots owner Robert Kraft apologized to fans. Coach Bill Belichick opted not to answer questions specific to "DeflateGate." (Reuters)
Columnist

On the epitaph of DeflateGate — if it ever dies — the inscription can exclude blame (which will never be clear), punishment (which will never be fair) and definitely cellphone propaganda (which is Kardashian-level silly). Skip right to a basic, bitter message.

Something like, “A horror of hubris.”

The controversy has turned into an egotistical battle of attrition. No one can win anymore. Not Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. Not Commissioner Roger Goodell and the rest of the league office. Not the average, impartial fan who cares mostly about justice. Only Patriots backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a chance to benefit from this mess, assuming his four-game stint during Brady’s suspension doesn’t leave you scrutinizing the PSI of his talent.

It’s all about how much blood will be shed now. On Tuesday, Goodell tried to embarrass Brady while announcing that the quarterback’s four-game suspension would be upheld, accusing Brady of destroying his cellphone to obstruct the NFL’s investigation. It was an explosive detail that, for a day, gave Goodell a convenient explanation for harsh discipline despite thin, inconclusive evidence and reopened discussion about the possible erosion of Brady’s legacy.

The Post Sports Live panel weighs in on how the NFL's investigation into whether the Patriots deflated footballs before their AFC championship game against the Colts affects the team's legacy. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, Brady responded with his own statement, posted on Facebook, in which he declared he merely replaced a broken phone “AFTER” his lawyers told the NFL that he wouldn’t hand over his phone because he didn’t want to set a precedent in a league investigation. Later, after he was punished, Brady said he cooperated by giving the league detailed phone records and e-mails because he now had to prove his innocence.

His statement was a passionate defense, but while he’s right to continue to harp on Goodell’s ham-handed pursuit of justice, Brady still comes across as an offender trying to burst through loopholes. He has no believable answers for the circumstantial evidence against him, and the cellphone destruction (or replacement!) was a foolish act that led to an easy opening for Goodell.

But Patriots owner Robert Kraft fired back in the strongest manner Wednesday. Kraft had attempted to be a peacemaker by not fighting the NFL’s decision in May to fine the franchise $1 million and strip it of first- and fourth-round draft picks. He thought it would lead to a reduction of Brady’s suspension. Now he likely feels like a fool, and Goodell is again at odds with perhaps his most influential owner.

“I was wrong to put my faith in the league,” Kraft said.

It just got real.

Considering the source, it’s the harshest thing anyone has ever said about Goodell.

Post NFL editor Keith McMillan recruits a few coworkers to see if they can tell which football has been under-inflated by 2 PSI, the amount the NFL claims the New England Patriots' game balls were deflated. (Davin Coburn and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

In time, Kraft will calm down. The tension might subside, but those words will linger. Kraft is shrewd, and he has an intimate understanding of all Goodell’s struggles with public trust. For one of Goodell’s greatest advocates to say he regrets trusting the league is as humiliating as it gets.

It’s as bad as a phone-destroying narrative.

It’s nasty, and the legal battle hasn’t commenced. There’s no way Goodell can turn the punishment of Brady and the Patriots into redemption for his past disciplinary sins. Instead, he is as inconsistent as ever, and there is even more confusion and distrust over the league’s disciplinary process.

But Brady isn’t merely a victim. He has hurt his image by employing the same arrogance and refusal to leave well enough alone that plagues Goodell. Like the commissioner he is fighting, Brady thinks he’s smart enough to outmaneuver his own mistake, and he refuses to compromise and take a pragmatic approach to resolution.

This never should have been a six-month headache. It should have ended with Brady admitting that he likes to grip a softer football and then apologizing that it led to controversy in the AFC championship game in January, a 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. He wouldn’t have needed to admit to being complicit in a scheme; no one can prove that. The NFL spent millions for Ted Wells to investigate the scandal, and he couldn’t untie all the knots.

Brady could have easily admitted that a mistake was made out of his preference for softer footballs, denied any intentional defiance, turned on his charm and moved past this quickly. He has acted with too much self-importance the past six months, and now the issue is bigger than the minor offense it should be.

It’s impossible to believe that Brady, one of the most particular and conscientious stars in professional sports, could be aloof about the football, his most important instrument.

This is a man so diligent about his craft that he includes workouts and meal plans for his vacations. He dismisses nothing. He’s meticulous about everything. In this controversy, he is a victim of Goodell’s desire to make a point, no matter how misguided, through punishment. But it’s not like the NFL investigated Brady for no reason.

It seems DeflateGate can end now only with Goodell and Brady throwing punches until they can’t anymore. Then perhaps there will be some stubborn head-butting attempts. And, finally, both will just collapse, bloodied and beaten, neither the better for it.

As easy as Goodell makes it to distrust him, it’s not worth it to root for Brady to keep wrestling with the NFL, either. The fight is all about ego now — Goodell’s redemption against Brady’s golden-boy reputation — and both are losing. As training camp begins across the NFL, a once-fascinating soap opera is turning into a frustrating distraction. And it could get uglier.

Forget the epitaph. Let’s just bury this scandal alive.

For more by Jerry Brewer, visit washingtonpost.com/brewer.