Hoping for Right but Getting it Wrong: Mr. Goodell’s Errant Decision
Wells Report Shows Officials are to Blame, Not Brady; Penalties are excessive and uncalled for
by Brian D. Sadie
The opening three paragraphs were updated Wednesday, 20 May, 2015. This article was finished 8 May with a statement update on 11 May.
To begin at the ending, or, after appeals and other actions, what might become the middle…
Robert Kraft will not pursue legal action against the NFL. With that statement, the League avoided a court battle that could have exposed the NFL much as removing the floor of the Coliseum showed the reality that existed below the game-day spectacles. But Mr. Kraft’s capitulation does not mean that the League was right. He and the League made a deal to sustain the product without an overall tarnish, since, as far as the NFL is concerned, it is better to smear New England than the entire league. Is there something fundamental to the fact that this sport fiasco has exposed a fan polarization that correlates strongly to such cultural and geographical indicators as political and religious affiliation? Why, despite obvious and favorable fact and the questionably-conducted, poorly-written Wells report, would Mr. Kraft not pursue justice and public vindication?
To begin with, everyone reading this article should already know, if not understand from experience, that only due process is guaranteed, not justice, and history has proven that process grinds along like a slow, heavy train or speeds recklessly, often, if not typically, railroading participants into winless situations regardless of fact and truth. Just as with national politics, when process is conducted as an internal affair of a major corporation, public opinion and appearance, assumption and prejudice, and real power, matter more than such morally or ethically lofty sentiments as fact, truth, and rectitude. Despite popularized notions and belief to the contrary, there is also a national tendency, in practice, to favor a collective over an individual, even when doing so is wrong.
Mr. Kraft chose to remain a part of the League that controls the game and the sport that he loves, and his love is of football and business. So let’s look at this affair, beginning with the report itself, and wonder why so many well-known, regularly published or broadcast media folk, including talk-show hosts, commentators, journalists, sports-writers, and even a few pundits who actually know the game involved, have seemingly accepted the flawed notions and foolish conclusions that no successful player in the NFL regards as valid, legitimate, or warranting concern.
Words can matter, and they certainly do in NFL Executive Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent’s statement to Tom Brady regarding the League’s decision about his supposed role in and penalty for the deflation problem. But there is room for irony, since so many in the NFL have gotten away with flagrant, and continuing, infractions long before this, including ball tampering. Here is the statement Mr. Vincent released concerning Tom Brady:
“With respect to your (Brady’s) particular involvement, …the report documents your failure to… produce any relevant electronic evidence (emails, texts, etc.),… Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football. The integrity of the game is of paramount importance to everyone in our league, and requires unshakable commitment to fairness and compliance with the playing rules. Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question.”
The statement rests upon a consumer group’s perception, a public sector of fans, and not necessarily facts relevant to the case at hand, and regardless of whether one chuckles or nods sternly when the NFL invokes its mantra, it is important in this affair. The League office’s decision is based on a deeply flawed report that ignored fact and drew conclusions from assumptions based on immature banter that New Englanders recognize as such. Whether or not Tom Brady knew that someone would underinflate balls — if someone did — no longer matters, but the NFL’s reliance upon the report for disciplinary proceedings and business decisions does because that’s how process and law function and the penalties affect the long-term performance of its corporate membership — the teams. To levy penalties is one thing, but to make them historically harsh and to fine and shackle individuals and a team organization that the report cleared is wrong-headed and disingenuous.
It seems that Mr. Goodell’s decision draws from more than some administrative playbook or legal counsel, not least because it exceeds the norms prescribed for all such infractions regardless of the sport. This affair appears to have struck at the heart of the League, embroiling the few who control it in classical terms of dramatic conflict: two camps, alike in power, divided, and some intent on mutiny. Personal friendship has been tested and extraneous factors such as public opinion and long-simmering jealousies and resentments have led owners to push Mr. Goodell, who’s role of administering the League’s affairs and executing its decisions has left him squarely in the middle and not wanting to look ineffectual, unfair, or weak.
Why the national media rushed to judgement and accepted Attorney Theodore Wells’ spurious assumption that Tom Brady knew about ball deflation below the permitted minimum was not surprising but remains irritating. Not only did the two gauges used by the officials provide significantly different readings from each other — one gauge had a severely bent needle that altered results — but no one remembered which gauge was used for which group of footballs. On page 116 the investigators admit that one gauge read high and the other low but failed to explain why they chose to run with the only combination of readings that might allow for suggestion of tampering. That’s a significant choice because, depending on which gauge was used first and by whom, tampering is not evident and can’t rightly be claimed.
The calls for Brady to be punished were exemplified by USA Today’s Jarrett Bell, who urged the League to suspend the quarterback. Even Boston news stations spoke as if Brady would be punished. New York papers naturally followed suit. Yet nowhere, not even in any of the text messages or interview transcripts found in Wells’ report, did anyone say or imply that Tom Brady ever asked for game balls to be less than the NFL League regulation weight. Instead, the report states that, throughout the season, Brady demanded that game balls be consistently inflated according to League specifications. Thus, if anything, the report suggests his innocence.
The 139-page Wells report is mostly concerned with explaining investigative process and chatting about what trinkets and souvenirs Brady did or did not give to major suspects. It also has 104-pages of experiment appendices for a 243-page submission, but only about 6 percent, roughly 16 pages, are relevant to AFC Championship Game balls, and that’s still three times more ink than concerns Brady. The report draws from two games for which Brady asked to have game balls prepared to 13 psi. After reading it one can only conclude that Brady had nothing to do with this charade. Considering the material in the report and the personalities of those involved it is, as Wells would say, more probable than not that someone wanted to frame the quarterback.
Wells uses that language because it is the NFL’s standard for determining guilt in investigative matters. It would not hold in a good court, but it’s how the NFL has elected to operate. Regardless, from the little relevant factual statement or hard testimony in the report, what stands out is a definite lack of integrity and professional care of at least some game day officials. Although not highlighted or commented on by Wells, that deserves the public outcry and attention. It may prove easier for the NFL to blame a quarterback married to a rich foreign uber-model rather than indict the League’s rules keepers and security personnel, but suspending Brady isn’t merely unjust, it hurts the game and the League, especially when more people understand that the report, even though it attempts to minimize the fact, states clearly and proves that game officials broke the rules — not the quarterback.
Both during the October 16, 2014 Jets and January 2015 AFC championship games officials failed to insure that balls were properly inflated and maintained until in play. In the Jets game, the officials deliberately and grossly violated League inflation rules by extremely over-inflating Patriots game balls to 16 psi. Whose fault is that? That is a League issue, a business problem, and not caused by Tom Brady.
When mentioned at all, Brady is quoted as requesting that game ball inflation be consistently between 12.6 and 13: for both games in question in the report, he requested 13. In short, the factual statements indicate that Brady was innocent of tampering or requesting that AFC Championship game balls be deflated below the League’s permitted limit. If he didn’t ask someone to deflate balls, then he wouldn’t have reason to know of anyone’s intention to do so. Please note that in the first half of the AFC Championship game, Brady, with floppy footballs, was only 11 of 21. In the second half, with balls inflated to 13 psi — which is what Brady prefers for such weather because the balls hold a spiral better and are more accurate — Brady was 12 of 14 with two touchdowns. Under-inflation does not improve performance in such weather and Brady knows that.
Brady is one of the three hardest passers, with velocity exceeding the mid-70s. To be that efficient, footballs require enough air pressure to enable them to perform in various conditions. Now, for all those who think Brady wants footballs inflated with less than 12.5 psi, a football attains a tighter spiral, better velocity, and truer course — it’s more accurate — when it is between or above the League’s range. It is untrue that fumbling occurs less often with slightly underinflated balls and arguable that they’re easier to grip, but they simply don’t pass through the air as quickly or well as those more inflated, and Brady’s reliance on tight passing windows requiring fast, accurate passes demands proper inflation: without it, his accuracy and performance would suffer.
In the midst of preparing for the Super Bowl, Brady allotted nearly one complete day to speak at length to Attorney Wells and investigators, yet he is a glaring omission in the report, appearing on about five pages and hardly quoted at all. Still, he is acknowledged as stating that he remembered complaining about the condition of the balls during the Jets game, including to Patriots equipment manager John Jastremski. Mr. Jastremski told Wells that Brady asked if one of the things the Patriots’ Home Game Officials Locker Room attendant (Jim McNally) was supposed to do was insure that officials inflated balls correctly and that nobody tampered with them instead of hanging out on the sideline before games. Brady then reportedly asked Mr. Jastremski to make sure all game balls were inflated to the middle of the League regulation even though he generally, given certain weather, preferred the League minimum. Brady made clear that he especially wanted consistency.
Jastremski’s and McNally’s texts prove that Brady wanted the balls to be within league limits, but they also suggest that McNally’s attitude was problematic: is he merely joking or is he so upset about being asked to maintain consistent ball pressure that he badmouths Brady and dreams of sabotaging balls? Jastremski said that when he mentioned Brady’s question to McNally on the sideline McNally snapped “f — Tom.” In his interview, McNally claimed that he viewed Brady’s comments as “an attack on me” and interpreted Brady’s statements as criticism. Brady demanded he do his job properly and assure consistent game ball inflation within League limits. For that, and for not giving lots of souvenirs or gifts, McNally seems to have resented him.
On page 128, as supporting argument for his conclusion, Wells asserts that Patriots employees wouldn’t deflate footballs without Brady’s asking, writing that “we also do not believe that they would personally and unilaterally engage in such conduct in the absence of Brady’s awareness and consent.” After seeing Jastremski’s and McNally’s text messages and listening to McNally complain, I expect that McNally might have done something rashly or to spite Brady. The sloppiness, or obviousness, and the timing — major Prime Time game for which the League was on alert for tampered footballs — suggests that possibility, too. As for Brady, he was concerned about consistent inflation of game balls but has never been claimed or found to have asked that balls be manipulated below the League minimum.
The report also states that Patriots counsel questioned the integrity and objectivity of some game officials, NFL executives and security representatives present at the AFC Championship Game or otherwise involved in the investigative process. Wells, however, claims he found no bias or cause for investigation. On page 28, the report says Wells and his team investigated all matters they believed were relevant to reaching their conclusions. Note that wording: relevant to reaching their conclusions. They examined little and proved nothing, ignoring critical evidence regarding the condition and use of damaged, un-calibrated gauges and needles but relied on the immature banter of a possibly disgruntled employee.
Investigators also downplayed the officials’ blatant disregard for rules and fairness during the Jets game and for not securing the footballs and properly testing them prior to the AFC Championship game, and that doesn’t instill faith in Wells’ remarks about the integrity or competence of game officials and administrators. Referee Walt Anderson is known for applying the squeeze test to balls more often than using pressure gauges, and, when the Championship game balls weren’t found where they were supposed to be, after finding them, he didn’t re-test them before kick-off. Furthermore, he did not log the information regarding ball pressure and which gauge was used for which ball. That matters because none of the Patriots balls would be considered under-inflated and most of the Colts balls would depending on which order the readings were made.
It’s understandable that Mr. Anderson was unwilling to admit that he wasn’t careful or precise and didn’t test or record the ball’s pressure levels, and no one wants to suggest that he played foul. But this mess happened on his watch, only hours after the League informed his colleagues and him of the possibility of tampering, and it happened despite the NFL sending representatives and security personnel to insure no tampering occurred.
However, because Wells did not investigate such possibilities as those arising from questionable actions by others, including officials, security personnel, and other locker room attendants, it remains unknown what those personnel did or did not do and how it affected the balls and game. What is known is that when the balls were inflated to the 13 psi that Brady favors in such weather conditions, his performance was flawless.
Much of this problem stems from McNally, who appears to have felt overworked and underappreciated. The report makes clear that preparation of footballs was a time-consuming task, and McNally disliked Brady’s expectation of consistency. What seems possible and might be at play here is that a lesser, nervous employee, angered by questions regarding his work and feeling pressured to pay attention on the job, acted out by deflating balls in a hurry. Maybe he thought the officials had over-inflated them again. Who knows? Wells certainly doesn’t, and he proved that.
It is also possible that McNally, or somebody else, was paid or simply asked by someone or an organization to deflate the balls, again without Brady’s knowledge. Gambling is a huge racket. How great would it be for some if Brady were kept from playing, especially just long enough to affect division standings? The motivation was there: Remember, McNally repeatedly said that he wanted to mess with Brady and get him back for pushing him to maintain consistent game ball preparation. With his own words, throughout the entire report, McNally appears unprofessional, inattentive and insecure, so likely to do things poorly or without Tom Brady’s knowledge or request.
Thus, even though text messages are often tone-deaf, McNally’s transcripts practically sing, suggesting a manner and distinct voice that speaks of agitation, defensiveness, and feeling picked on. But all that the messages and words indicate and mean about Brady is that he had correctly said that the Jets game officials overinflated the Patriots game balls to pressure well outside the league’s rules and that he asked for McNally to be more diligent in assuring that the balls were at or near the same inflation rate that he liked: 13 to 12.5 psi, within the league’s rules. There is nothing here to suggest or indicate that Brady asked for the balls to be underinflated or for either man to cheat.
Wells states that he draws his conclusion about Brady from the remarks of Jastremski and McNally, but Wells and his investigative team seem unfamiliar with the sport and its culture as well as New England speech, routinely misinterpreting and misunderstanding remarks and motivations. Additionally, Wells’ interpretation and conclusion of Brady’s texts to Jastremski after the news of deflated footballs broke seems sorely biased. If you’ve listened to Brady over the years then you hear him in those texts: His words to Jastremski were generic but supportive. They sound genuine and ring true, and do not suggest wrongdoing or covering-up.
Wells further defends his assertion of Brady’s probable guilt on pages 122–123 when he reiterates that McNally knew Brady’s preference and requested that the referee inflate the balls to it. True, Brady requested specific inflation rates after the Jets game fiasco, although for that game he asked for a higher rate than his usual. Remember, too, that officials are charged with inflating and securing game balls, and pumping them to 16 psi is a deliberate and gross violation of League rules, of the Officials’ Union policy, of business and gaming law and conduct, and, in this case, was also personal. Brady likely irritated them at the Jets game when he complained, but he never asked for under-inflated footballs: They would hamper his performance, anyway.
So what about that championship game?
Ravens Coach John Harbaugh told Colts coaches to check the footballs and, one day before the AFC championship game, Colts General Manager Ryan Grigson emailed senior NFL football operations personnel David Gardi and Mike Kensil about concerns regarding game ball pressure. Given the tip, Grigson said, the Colts wanted the Patriots’ game balls checked for deflation during the game.
Why not call Kraft for assurance of no shenanigans? It’s a rich man’s game, after all, isn’t it? But it’s okay that Grigson called the League and expressed concern. Still, to follow Attorney Wells’ approach, it would seem more likely than not — probable, even, given their recent history — that the Ravens and Colts wished to cause trouble and found a lackey to make it. The Patriots and Brady have long suffered vilification and aspersions from various rivals, more than the Raiders and cheap-shot Steelers of the seventies, but this new claim has generated greater slander and defamation than ever, and Brady’s suspension has come despite no proof or even likelihood of wrong.
Roger Goodell knows better than to reward cheap slander and assumption, especially when it comes from a practicing lawyer such as Theodore Wells. Furthermore, despite a career in marketing and public relations, uninformed opinion and League prejudices oughtn’t sway Mr. Goodell, either. Thus it would have been pleasing had he put those demanding Brady’s punishment in place with a stern, articulate message regarding precisely why the report warrants that Brady not be punished for something others might have done.
It might surprise people to realize how many and how often things come down to the actions of one person, even one part-timer at a major corporation. Did one official tamper with the balls, over-inflate them? Did McNally notice and try to correct it? Was McNally goofing off, chatting up a girl before he realized the title game was about to start? Or did McNally just do it to spite Brady? It’s all more likely than Wells’ conclusion.
The law firm Wells works with is used by the NFL for investigative purposes, yet the report contains no background on the issue at hand, on the infraction, on the problem. Context is important here, because, even though Brady is not accused of or responsible for manipulating pressure, other quarterbacks have been directly involved in tampering with game balls in the NFL’s past, both long ago and currently. The difference is that nothing had been done about it before. So why malign a quarterback who the report indicates specifically demanded that game balls be consistently and properly inflated? Why make an issue of this previously-occurring, League-wide issue now?
The NFL is a ten billion dollar business with only 32 owners, including the publicly-held Green Bay Packers. Despite those numbers, NFL owners seldom pay for stadiums, getting tax money and citizens to cover those costs and later cough up ridiculous money for tickets and overpriced concessions. Mr. Goodell’s last reported annual salary was $44 million. The NFL last week elected to change its tax-exempt status and become private, which means it will be required to disclose even less information. As a private and rich company with few owners and highly-paid executives, it relies on public goodwill, so it needs more than good product: it must develop emotional interest, fervor, or attachment. To that end, and especially since Mr. Goodell began working for it in marketing and product development and management, the League has strengthened its connections with the military, law enforcement, religious institutions and discretely targeted, high-profile public service entities. But the product the NFL submits as football is different from that of its past, and the origins and culture of the NFL itself are at odds with this.
The original culture of the NFL was one of workers out-slugging and beating each other up to get into the end zone, preferably in a way that left no doubt that, at least on that day, one was stronger and tougher and better than the other. But the guys who played back then got pocket money from the bets the company bosses placed against each other. Eventually a professional league was recognized and it continued to fill from the ranks of tough German, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants and laborers with a smattering of college graduates. Gradually, college programs developed as essential preparation for the growing professional league that was becoming serious business not only culturally but economically and, therefore, politically.
The game in the seventies had some of the dirtiest, most overtly-cheating winners ever known but the game was great and people loved it. In the eighties, receivers, including four-time Super Bowl winner Jerry Rice, used stickum and glue and defenders packed material in the tape on their hands to smash and bloody offensive lineman and ball carriers after plays stopped. Splints and tape were used to prevent fingers and arms getting bitten and stomped as much as to help broken bones and injured tissue heal. Generally speaking, coaches, some of whom are among the most vocal critics today, were known for being obnoxious, insulting, and anything but nice or interested in good behavior. After all, they had grown up as hard-scrabble kids from coal towns, mining towns, steel towns, farms. Organized crime played a part, too, and gambling: even Alex Karras, a much beloved figure both as a football player and actor, was involved in a major NFL betting scandal, but that was quickly downplayed, forgotten, and, eventually, barely mentioned in his obituary. But, most often, football players kept that bad behavior on the field. Many players were actually kind and decent men.
There were also the likes of O. J. Simpson, who grew up stealing things and running, sometimes unsuccessfully, from cops (see his sister’s and mother’s quotes in the mid-seventies Sports Illustrated article about him in which they admitted they thought he’d end up in jail for good if he hadn’t been drafted by the NFL). Many didn’t care about playing fair as long as they got recognition. For them, the business of football provided a way out. Nice behavior was something you could play at to keep things going, but…
Many of today’s athletes do care because the game is under a microscope and, for them, reputation matters. Brady doesn’t want asterisks next to his name and accomplishments. He’s worked far more and harder than most folks to attain his position and success, and he clearly cares about his health and image. But so do the Mannings, and let’s not forget that it was Peyton Manning who asked Tom Brady to join him in asking other quarterbacks to lobby the NFL for permission to prepare game balls, initially to eliminate or reduce the slippery coating applied to all new footballs in the factory.
And what about ball pressure, after all? It’s the officials’ job to notice that, anyway, and not just before but during the game: they test, switch and set the balls every down. Does air pressure really matter that much? And when, exactly, and where, precisely, and by whom did the air get let out? It seems that no one noticed the balls were significantly underinflated the night of the Championship game until one particular ball was pressed hard by a Colts defender on his team’s sideline. For all we know every ball was fine until then. Also remember that, were someone to wish to be sneaky about it, air might have been released on the sideline, and no quarterback would likely note, in time, a problem since he wouldn’t touch the ball until it’s snapped to him. But then he’d hand it off or assess his receivers’ positions and coverage while avoiding onrushing defenders before, within two to three seconds, getting rid of the ball. There is slim chance any quarterback would focus on ball inflation then.
Nearly every former NFL quarterback has downplayed or given comedic answer about their game ball preparations, and none active has criticized Brady, dismissing the report and the issue instead. Why?
There are more important rules that, applied when the game is on, assure legitimate results — rules that govern play and behavior and seek to prevent deliberate injury to players, and the question of inflation isn’t one of them or new. The Colts had a history of it, including with the Patriots, and ball inflation had repeatedly come to the League office’s attention before the AFC Championship game involving other major players, most notably in Green Bay. The issue was quickly buried, but has arisen now that Tom Brady, and not Aaron Rodgers, is the player in question.
Aaron Rogers has often stated that he likes a heavily-inflated football, more inflated than League rules permit. In November, 2014, during week 13 of the NFL season, he admitted that he regularly over-inflated the Packers’ footballs because it provides him a better grip and complained that officials routinely deflate Packers game balls despite his protests and careful preparations. Rodgers discussed the issue several more times throughout the season and into the playoffs, saying on his ESPN radio show as recently as January that he doesn’t think officials should be permitted to deflate his prepared footballs. “I have a major problem with the way it goes down, to be honest with you,” Rob Demovsky quoted him as saying. Well, now, here’s another star quarterback, another face of the Moral NFL, only this one admits to breaking the inflation rules — often and repeatedly. Yet the League did nothing.
Now let’s revisit Mr. Vincent’s statement to Brady:
“Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football. The integrity of the game is of paramount importance to everyone in our league, and requires unshakable commitment to fairness and compliance with the playing rules. Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public’s confidence in the game is called into question.”
The League based its decision on the report’s assumptions of Brady’s behavior rather than on evidence and fact, but even ignoring that prejudice leaves others. Do Rodgers’ inflation antics cause the public to question the game’s integrity? If not, why, then, should anybody else’s? Many players comment on the effect of cold northern weather, but none complain it’s why they failed to execute and lost. Regarding the AFC Championship game, Colts safety Mike Adams didn’t blame ball pressure for his team’s loss, saying “I’m more worried that we got our asses beat than (about) deflated footballs.” His teammate, tight end Dwayne Allen, also dismissed the idea of deflation and Deflategate with the following tweet: “not a story. They could have played with soap for balls and beat us. Simply the better team.”
Still, as NFL National Lead Writer Mike Freeman reported in his 8 May article Sources: Patriots’ Reputation as NFL’s “Best Cheaters” Made Them a Target, NFL folk admitted that the League knows cheating routinely occurs in many ways by every organization but some teams and owners believe, even if it isn’t true and despite never being proven, that the Patriots are better at it when they do then everybody else. That distrust and envy of sustained success in a sport engineered and manipulated to force parity and average team winning percentages is evidenced elsewhere, too. Even the Brady-Manning rivalry reflects far greater cultural and overtly political factors than typically found in US sports. Brady and New England’s fan demographics resemble that of Gore’s voters in 2000: maps of their Super Bowl supporters or those believing Brady are nearly identical to the 2000 electoral map, and that was nearly identical to Civil War political maps.
But even Rex Ryan, a great opponent of the Patriots, knows that underinflated footballs have not and do not enhance Brady’s greatness, and Ryan’s coaches and staff are disappointed that the league has suspended him. Freeman quoted one Bills coach as saying the Bills want to beat New England and Brady and that the League should let him play. NFL quarterbacks share that sentiment while also saying the issue of inflation is unimportant because every quarterback and team prepares its footballs the way they want. What matters most are coaching, talent, and luck. None of them feel that the integrity of the game is affected by this trivial, if commonplace, issue. So, let’s look again at air pressure.
To understand why Aaron Rodgers would prefer a harder football, it’s worth knowing that barometric pressure and other weather phenomena, in a normal Green Bay fall and winter, cause greater rates of football deflation, and more rapidly, than anywhere else in the League. Sometimes in Buffalo and the South, when building temperature and weather cooperate, deflation rates approach that of Green Bay, but not normally.
Thus it’s not surprising that Rodgers asks for game balls to be hyper-inflated. A little more than two years ago footballs in Lambeau Field were tested and found to be over-inflated, even at halftime. When the hardness of the ball is added to the other aspects of the game, one can understand what both receivers and defenders have said about Rogers and some other quarterbacks: they throw so hard that it’s often difficult to catch their passes. Add cold, wet, and hard into the equation, and defenders have a more difficult time intercepting passes thrown like fastballs. What does that say about the fact that Rodgers hasn’t had an interception in home games for an anomalous two full seasons? As for Peyton Manning, many have commented on his passes flapping as if they were ducks. Over the last several years, he has preferred low inflation, and that does not foster a truer spiral and trajectory in windy or harsh weather.
Will the League request a valid sample size of football testing before admitting that this isn’t purely a two-time, Patriot event? I say two-time because the officials in charge of the Jets-Patriots game deliberately over-inflated Patriots footballs by nearly 3 psi. That’s a huge increase in pressure, to Aaron Rodgers’ preferred rate.
The League cares about this issue because, in the public sphere, certainly among journalists, it has, apparently more than flagrantly bad officiating at key moments of important games, made some call into question the integrity of the game. But the integrity and ethics of the organization and the people who make it seems a topic the League is less willing to address, at least publicly. So the NFL ignores or downplays such things as players’ histories of violence; of crime and abuse and arrests of college stars recently drafted; of domestic assault and battery; of witnesses paid off and refusing to testify again against NFL players of value; but the League office chomps at the bit over the possibility of some locker room lackey messing with air pressure — something readily fixed on the sideline — because the League thinks the idea of a tampered ball, the thing the game is played with, is seen by the public as diminishing the game’s integrity. But real ball tampering existed long before the Colts game and Brady has never been accused of it or found asking for illicit footballs.
That quarterbacks have different preferences is natural and not the problem: the integrity of the sport is in question only because NFL officials are the ones inflating, deflating, and guarding the balls. Remember the Jets game: Let’s not miss the point of the facts that this report has made clear — officials, not team members, deliberately tampered with footballs in a way that compromised team performance. And Brady complained. Think that didn’t anger some people? Think some wouldn’t like to get back at the rich guy with the hot wife, Hollywood hair and clothes?
It’s not as if the League truly wants to hurt Brady, although a few, including the guys who were called out by him for tampering with the tools of his trade, might. We can surely understand Brady’s concern, and especially given what’s happening now. And yes, the NFL wants the public to be passionate and occupied about this issue because it means people aren’t thinking about or getting outraged that the NFL hires — and pays millions to — thuggish, brutish, abusive hoodlums, thieves, girlfriend, wife, or child-beaters, and even occasional murderers. Yet now its star quarterback, who is not an abusive, dishonest, violent person, is being called a cheater for something the evidence suggests he neither requested be done nor did and probably didn’t even happen. Instead of addressing the fact that officials are equally likely to be guilty of tampering with the game balls or that others have admitted and been caught doing so before, the League has excessively suspended one of its greatest draws and good guys while also penalizing his team and organization despite its being cleared of suspicion.
Regardless of what ultimately happens to Tom Brady, the League and its owners will continue to prosper, because many of us — great fans of the game, if not the business — appreciate good people succeeding and providing the remarkable football stories and memories that make the game and League worthwhile. But we also abhor injustice, even in sport, even when it happens to ridiculously rich people, if they are gracious and seem truly kind. So we believe that negatively affecting a hard-working player’s rightful mark and place in history by preventing him from playing and penalizing his team despite non-involvement in something that might not have happened is unacceptable.
So much for the report on which the decision was supposed to be based. But of equal importance is who made the decision. Who would wish to have such a problem to resolve?
Roger Goodell is a son of former Republican Senator Charles Goodell, famous for his progressive and anti-war beliefs and politics. Jane Fonda befriended him, Coretta Scott King marched arm-in-arm with him, and Hillary Clinton worked for him. The Senator was genuine, a decent man in public office during troubled days, and therefore Nixon and Kissinger hated him and overtly worked, with numerous Party hacks, including the Buckleys, to personally embarrass or politically destroy Senator Goodell. Roger was old enough to partake of campaigning, and he understood the emotional truth of politics and saw the reality of publicly-appointed and elective-office power. After leaving public office in Washington, D.C., Senator Goodell served as a lawyer for Daniel Ellsberg on the hugely important and still-relevant Pentagon Papers case and remained, in many ways, progressively liberal. But Charles Goodell didn’t act expediently: he did what he believed was right, even when it cost him his job. That he was financially capable of surviving regardless of his employment should not diminish one’s appreciation for his decisions or the effect they had on his children, who learned that character and thought, and the resulting actions, have consequences.
In his February 4, 2013 Grantland article entitled Mr. Goodell Goes to Washington: The father of the commish versus Richard Nixon, Bryan Curtis suggests that Roger Goodell got two important things from his father: a sense of idealism mixed with stubbornness and that sort of defense mechanism that comes from seeing one’s dad, or at least his career and livelihood, publicly ruined, and that, Mr. Curtis suggests, has Rodger Goodell careful about letting that happen to himself. So it is that we often see Roger Goodell, in public appearances surrounded by smiling, laughing people, wishing to be seen as steering the sensible, right course. Senator Goodell understood advertising, public relations, and public goodwill, and so does his son, Rodger.
I believe that Mr. Goodell wanted to do the right thing in this affair, but I think he believed that he had to look tough and decisive in a simplistic way to a mass of unthinking fans and disingenuous, opportunistic owners. It’s a shame, because I feel that Mr. Goodell would have honored his father and his father’s legacy — and further cemented his own — by showing a finer strength of character, integrity, and respect for the game he oversees by publicly, if graciously, dismissing the report for what it is: from the perspective of the Ravens and Colts and those who would prosecute Tom Brady, at best inconclusive. Mr. Goodell might then have publicly acknowledged that, by the report’s own words, and given appropriate scientific testing and fact, Tom Brady must be seen as innocent in this affair.
Mr. Goodell could have dismissed the matter: after all, the report and its conclusions would be thrown out in an honest court. Yet now we’re left with a League statement rich in unintended irony that is prejudicial, not least because it blames a quarterback for causing that great indefinable — the public — to question the integrity of the game.
And who are the public? Whose opinion matters? It’s likely that the owners and League personnel, including players and coaches, matter most to Goodell, but there is a balance with the fan base. It’s pretty clear that public opinion is largely defined by some working in, or maybe for, the media, since most folks form their opinions after becoming aware of something from a media source. It was interesting that Mr. Goodell’s decision was barely forty-minutes public before USA Today’s Chris Chase claimed in an article entitled The NFL finally got it right with Tom Brady’s four-game suspension that the deflated footballs in the first half affected the outcome of the game and that Brady’s suspension and the penalties against the Patriots were appropriate.
Firstly, Mr. Chase might dislike the Patriots or just be a Colts or Ravens or Jets fan, and it might be true that deflated balls affected the outcome of the game, but if so, they saved the Colts greater embarrassment. Yet Brady’s suspension is twice the length appropriate for equivalent infractions as the one alleged and twice the length and percentage of suspensions in the other major sports. For anyone interested, Ben Volin’s Wells Report has plenty of points to toss around, in the Boston Sunday Globe, 10 May, provides comparison, but everyone already knew that a one or two game suspension is normal.
Secondly, because the Patriots organization, including Messrs. Kraft and Belichick, were determined to not be knowledgeable of or otherwise party to any claimed infraction, they should not have been punished. The penalty is not merely unjust but, as with Brady’s, excessive: draft picks matter, especially first-rounders.
But there are reasons, human and understandable as well as simply business, that can explain why Mr. Goodell struck so hard. As it turned out, he was in a difficult position, and even though he is a privileged man who moved smoothly, and voluntarily, into his position, maintaining a chief executive office with a board of perhaps thirty of the richest, most bottom-line-oriented individuals on the planet would not necessarily be simple and always pleasant. The situation was further complicated by Mr. Goodell’s active friendship with Mr. Kraft and the envy that nearly all of the owners reportedly have for the Patriots’ success.
So now to the lessons of Mr. Goodell’s youth: was his decision expedient, intended to appease the majority, hard-line owners and their constituent publics demonstrating a collective personality resembling the Harbaugh brothers and certain Baltimore Ravens defensive players when in bars after midnight? Did Mr. Goodell choose to avoid the plastic tarp on the floor by doing what so many effective politicians routinely do: compromise despite knowing that he is doing something wrong?
Maybe, maybe not. It might be that he simply wished to make clear to the League that he wants this to stop now and that it will be dealt with this way or worse from now on. With his decision Mr. Goodell appeases Patriots haters, the Brady jealous, the not-so-frequent-winners and consistent losers of the NFL. He looks tough to a significant part of this nation and football fandom. Yet, despite seemingly vindicating the prejudices and beliefs of New England’s detractors, the decision might not prove completely awful for the Patriots, who should and will appeal and may even sue. Brady’s suspension will be either reduced or struck and the Patriots should have their penalties eliminated since they were cleared in Wells’ report of any knowledge and possible wrongdoing.
And what of Msrrs. Goodell and Kraft? Has Mr. Goodell’s action cost him a friendship? That remains to be seen, but, for now, at least, the often-under-fire commissioner has made a point that should cause changes in rules and practice before the next season begins.
Mr. Goodell’s decision indicates various dynamics in his business, more than just the gross financial and collective value and benefit calculations of the NFL but also the workings of political beliefs and values expressed through media outlets and behind select doors. But the hardness and reach of his decision might also show something of a little remaining idealism: the anger of friendship strained by the hurt of perceived betrayal. Such feelings have often left profound marks and influence, not only in politics, but also in the business and games of sports.
New England will use this to bolster fortitude early next season and the League will likely have a new rule or two. Culture can change, and it would be nice if Mr. Goodell would find a way — a good one, and fair — to clean the game of its worst offenders and those responsible for enabling them, both on and off the field, while improving the integrity of those responsible for the play of the games. Officials should be more careful: Ball tampering, among other things, should matter, and Goodell’s handling of McNally and maybe Jastremski seems fine. Suspending Brady is wrong but, had Aaron Rodgers also been suspended — and both for only one game — it would have been somewhat acceptable. Mr. Goodell could instead have taken this opportunity to inform the League that he wanted ball manipulation to stop, that effective measures will be enforced to insure appropriate inflation, and that set punishment for violations will be made. Mr. Goodell would draw criticism from some, and even insult, no matter what he might have said or done — such is life as a prominent figure in the sports world. But had he clearly indicated that tampering must stop, acknowledged the flaws in the report, and meted out less excessive or no punishment, Mr. Goodell, for demonstrating fairness and a keen sense of justice, would have improved his standing in league annals and the memories of those who love the game.
About the Author
Brian D. Sadie is president of the film company Eloquent Bastard Productions. He was formerly Executive Director of The Joseph K. Foundation: On Privacy and was recruited and hired as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. His writing appears in publications as diverse as The Economist, Boston Book Review, TeenLife, and Informationen der Gesellschaft für politische Aufklarüng. Mr. Sadie is often a featured contributor to educational and Ed Tech entities about education and literacy. He graduated with honors from Harvard University in History and Middle Eastern Studies and was a Pew Fellow of religion and world affairs. He is an ardent sports fan and equally ardent critic of the business of sports. His sometime blog is at: http://eloquentb.wordpress.com/