The official National-Waste-of-Time-and-Money, known as DeflateGate and brought to you by the National Football League, had another watershed public moment this week when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld Patriots' quarterback Tom Brady's 4-game suspension to start the 2015-16 season. Although the punishment is ostensibly for directing Patriots' footballs to be underinflated for the AFC Championship Game against the Colts in January, it's really for not prostrating himself on the floor next to the Commissioner's rich mahogany desk and publicly begging for forgiveness for besmirching the NFL Shield. Brady has now appealed his suspension in Federal Court, so we can be assured of at least several more equally seminal and riveting moments of national attention. Only Donald Trump can assure us of comparable coverage of meaningless gas.
The Indianapolis Colts, in the process of getting destroyed by the running game of the Patriots in the AFC Championship game last January, ratted on the Patriots for the low pressure of their footballs. An underinflated football makes it softer. Theoretically this allows for more control while throwing and catching, and possibly to a reduced fumbling rate, particularly in bad weather. When the air pressure in the balls was measured at halftime, it was, in fact, below the league mandated minimum pressure. A couple of locker room guys with unbelievably stupid incriminating texts on their cell phones were suspended and subsequently fired. The assumption (certainly correct) was that their quarterback told them to let some air out of the balls, although neither had any text or written communication directly from Brady. We were fed the absolutely ludicrous line that Bill Belichick was shocked, shocked, to find out that this had happened. Brady was set up as the Lee Harvey Oswald of inflationary impropriety, and was suspended.
Goodell himself had levied Brady’s original suspension after spending way too much time and money on a "thorough" investigation by noted attorney Ted Wells, which generated a report substantially longer than the report generated when Ray Rice was accused of, and later televised, beating his fiancee unconscious in an elevator. He also fined the Patriots. The Patriots paid their fine, and appealed Brady’s suspension. That appeal was denied by Goodell this week.
As far as anyone can tell, the main reasoning that the Commissioner gave for upholding his own ruling during the appeal process is that Brady destroyed his cell phone after the initial investigation was concluded. (This was, we now know, a very brave action by the Commissioner, taken at great personal risk. Local police in Prout’s Neck, Maine were notified by the NFL to keep a close eye on Roger Goodell’s summer house because, you know, Patriots’ fans.) It is, of course, entirely possible that the Commissioner was pissed that Tom replaced his Official NFL Sponsor Samsung Galaxy with an iPhone, but that is one of those things we’ll just never know.
Here is something that we do know. The NFL actually allows teams to maintain their own footballs within a specified range of inflation pressures. They are checked once before each game by the game officials, then returned to the teams for use. This is supposed to be under supervision of the game staff, but clearly that isn’t the case. The accusation against Brady and the Patriots is that the footballs were only deflated after the balls were checked in the regular pregame ritual. Which they were. And anyone who thinks the Patriots (and other teams, for that matter) haven't been monkeying around with their footballs - in addition to every other piece of equipment, stadium configuration, field conditions, dome lighting, visiting locker room air quality, contract terms, communications systems, and anything else they can think of - for years is either incredibly naive, or, well, incredibly naive.
Ever since rich white men realized there was money to be made by paying athletes to play a game and then charging lots of people lots of money to come watch, at least one unofficial motto of professional sports has been some variation of "If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'." Every team, player, and coach in every sport tries to gain an advantage over his or her opponent. Why wouldn’t they? There are millions - actually billions - of dollars at stake. And if they’re caught? They don’t have to give the money or the trophies back, except in the most extreme circumstances.
If the NFL cares so much about the inflation pressure of the game ball, then the balls should be checked, collected, and kept by an official of the NFL. It’s not like the league needs to save money on staff. My favorite asinine part of this entire fiasco, of which there are many, is that the pathetic league protocol for monitoring footballs provided the Commissioner with the easiest out possible. He could have addressed the accusation, claimed that the investigation revealed suspicious behavior patterns but no concrete proof, and then put forth new guidelines to ensure that the game balls would be more closely monitored. A few Colts fans would have complained, the Patriots conspiracists would have been pissed, the Patriots and Brady would have paid their fine and been mildly embarrassed by some bad jokes and a bit of a tarnished shine on their Super Bowl trophy, and that would have been that. Within a week, Brady’s balls would have retreated into the realm of sports anecdotes along with Gaylord Perry’s vaseline and Jack Tatum’s Stick’Um.
Instead, the Commissioner created a story that has no legitimate end in sight. We’ve already had six months of ridiculousness. Brady will end up serving his suspension, missing the first 4 games of the season. Unless, of course, he wins the judicial appeal, which he won’t. Then what? Everyone moves on? Not likely. Suppose the Patriots miss the playoffs by a win or two that they don’t get while Brady is serving the suspension? We’ll be talking about this through the Super Bowl. If they make the playoffs, we’ll be talking about it as the great challenge they had to overcome, and the rest of the league will claim that the punishment should have been even more significant. Imagine if they win the Super Bowl again? There will be hue and cry to investigate their cleat lengths, or their jersey weights, or the opposing sideline monitors hidden in Bill Belichick’s hoodie.
Meanwhile, the really bad stuff goes on. The domestic violence; an insidious gun culture; the physical toll on the current players and the health issues of former players; the abuse of the collegiate athletic system. Whatever. Roger Goodell picked his battle to protect The Integrity Of The Game, and it seems that he will win. If he thinks that underinflated footballs are the biggest threat to The Shield, though, he’s lost his mind.