It is easy to imagine that at some point late last year, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell looked back upon a scandalized season — one fraught by the Ray Rice incident, that awful video and the league’s gross mishandling of the case — considered the public-relations mess and thought to himself, “Well, at least it can’t get any worse than this.”
Hmm. Maybe it can, after all.
A controversy over slightly underinflated footballs never seems preposterously less important than when mentioned alongside domestic violence, an actual crime with a real victim, but this also is true:
The hits keep coming. The NFL keeps getting its bell rung and seeing its almighty shield dented and dirtied. And now the 2015 season, on our doorstep with training camps opening this week, will likely begin under the embarrassing shadow of the NFL, its defending champion and arguably its single biggest star mired in litigation.
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We can’t know how a court case would turn out but we already know the outcome:
Both sides lose.
No matter the court ruling, Goodell and the NFL just can’t seem to make it all about football again. And “Deflategate” is now permanently tattooed onto Tom Brady’s name and legacy, regardless of what happens from here.
Tuesday’s development was big. The league rejected Brady’s appeal and affirmed his original four-game suspension — Goodell in effect saying, “I uphold my decision.” That wasn’t so surprising. It was the reason why that is so damning to the New England Patriots’ veteran quarterback.
The NFL determined that Brady ordered an assistant to destroy the cellphone he’d used around the time of Deflategate during last season’s playoffs, the phone containing some 10,000 texts. Brady claims he always destroys old cellphones when he gets new ones. Hmm again. Seems far likelier he meant to erase incriminating evidence.
Now all indications are that Brady, apparently not done fighting, will appeal his four-game ban to the federal courts.
(Imagine you are a federal judge, accustomed to handling cases involving terrorism and issues of grave national importance, and now across your bench comes the matter of underinflated footballs. Seriously!?)
Brady fighting this would be noble to those in Greater Boston and the dwindling others who steadfastly see him as falsely accused and trying to clear his good name.
This would be stupid to the rest of us.
Brady needs to be a big boy, take his hard medicine and serve his suspension now, missing the first four games of the regular season.
This might not be the best course for his ego or pride, but it would be best for his team.
Taking this to court and a possible protracted fight would present the real possibility that if the suspension were upheld by a federal judge, a strong likelihood, Brady’s four-game ban might come late in the season, when the importance of games is magnified. Or even in the playoffs.
The Dolphins and the rest of the AFC East are especially watching closely. Brady going to court should be met with high-fives among Fins coach Joe Philbin and his cornerbacks, because it means Miami might avoid facing Brady in one of the teams’ two meetings — perhaps even in the Jan. 3 season finale with maybe a playoff spot at stake.
What should be so frustrating to Patriots fans is that this whole matter is much ado about something pretty trivial but has mushroomed in large part because of misplays by Brady in his strategy on handling it all.
The original four-game suspension over those underinflated balls in the AFC Championship Game was handed down mostly because Brady refused to fully cooperate with the league’s independent Ted Wells investigation. That investigation was egregiously flawed and inconclusive, but Brady seeming to have something to hide allowed the league to sink its hooks somewhere.
Then came the appeal, denied because Brady again appeared to have something to hide in destroying that cellphone.
Nobody in his right mind thinks the action — infinitesimally underinflated footballs that had zero bearing on a game’s outcome — is anything more than a football misdemeanor worthy of a wrist slap.
But somehow, Brady’s response to the charges has managed to make the whole thing seem felonious. For me, Brady continues to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer who should be seen, first, as a champion. But he has made sure “Deflategate” must be mentioned high in his career’s summary. It isn’t to him what Watergate was to Nixon. But it’s up there.
Brady and supermodel wife Giselle Bundchen can afford to take any legal battle as far as it will go.
I’m less sure that the Patriots can afford that.
Or that Brady’s reputation can.