The cover-up is always worse than the crime.
That was what the NFL was signaling when it handed down its harsh punishment of Tom Brady and the New England Patriots in the wake of Deflategate Monday. The league’s golden boy was suspended four games without pay and his team was fined $1 million and docked two draft picks.
On the surface, that kind of hit certainly didn’t fit what Brady was accused of orchestrating, but this penalty wasn’t about the PSI in footballs, it was about the superstar quarterback and his team stonewalling like a Clinton in front of Congress.
The problem, though, remains one of public relations for a league which doesn’t have the foresight to explain a narrative buried in paragraphs seven and eight of Troy Vincent’s letter to the Pats.
“Another important consideration is ‘the extent to which the (Patriots) and relevant individuals cooperated with the investigation,’ the NFL executive vice president of football operations wrote. “The (Ted) Wells report identifies two significant failures in this respect. The first involves the refusal by the club’s attorneys to make (game-day attendant) Mr. (James) McNally available for an additional interview, despite numerous requests by Mr. Wells and a cautionary note in writing of the club’s obligation to cooperate in the investigation. The second was the failure of Tom Brady to produce any electronic evidence (emails, texts, etc.), despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information. Although we do not hold the club directly responsible for Mr. Brady’s refusal to cooperate, it remains significant that the quarterback of the team failed to cooperate fully with the investigation.
“Finally, it is significant that key witnesses — Mr. Brady, (assistant equipment man) Mr. (John) Jastremski, and Mr. McNally — were not fully candid during the investigation.”
If Brady and either Bill Belichick or Robert Kraft accepted at least a modicum of responsibility for the world’s stupidest scandal, we would likely be talking about a game for the quarterback and perhaps a nominal fine and maybe the surrendering of that fourth-round pick for New England.
Of course, it’s conceivable even that wouldn’t have been acceptable to Kraft, who steadfastly maintains his team did nothing wrong.
“Despite our conviction that there was no tampering with footballs, it was our intention to accept any discipline levied by the league,” Kraft said in a statement after the news broke. “Today’s punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.”
The circumstantial argument is a red herring because that type of evidence is used every day in this country to convict people of far more significant crimes than Brady or the Patriots are accused. No more so than the league’s claim that this incident affected the “integrity of the game” however.
“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,” Vincent, a former Pro Bowl cornerback, wrote, while addressing Brady.
“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.”
My thesis remains that by acting like this is a big deal, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell is attempting to convince the general public that the “integrity of the game” is an issue.
Goodell is in the mind-set of his own cover-up, a veiled attempt to repair his reputation as the steward of this game, and he saw an opportunity to advance it when Brady and the Pats failed to cooperate.
Ask yourself: If the integrity of the game is really in the balance, why is no one from the league hauling former Tampa Bay signal caller Brad Johnson into Park Avenue to explain his $7,500 outlay to ball boys to “break in the footballs” before the Buccaneers’ win in Super Bowl XXXVII?
And why did the NFL itself acquiesce to Brady and Peyton Manning in 2006 when they pushed to provide their own footballs?
In fact, if the integrity of the game is really at stake, this is simplest fix ever — footballs straight out of the box at 12.5 PSI for all.
But that’s never been the problem here.
“I told you guys from the beginning, this is one of the bigger witch hunts in the history of the NFL, in my opinion,” Shaun King, also a former Bucs quarterback, told CBS Sports Radio on Monday. “Being a former quarterback, I’m telling you, we all get in a room with the balls, and we find the balls we like. If we don’t have balls we like, we create balls that we like, and those are the balls that we use on Sunday. Every quarterback does it.”
If you don’t want to believe observers like me or King, who have no skin in this game, ask yourself this simple question: If Tim Tebow or Mike Kafka play with the footballs the Pats had at their disposal in the AFC Championship Game, do you really think they are turning into Tom Terrific?
Tempering with footballs is a signal caller’s version of the placebo, nothing more and nothing less.
So what exactly was the NFL trying to accomplish with this punishment?
Simple, it was a desperate attempt by a commissioner with little credibility to regain the moral high ground by playing tough guy against the league’s most successful team and its highest-profile player.
Once the toothpaste is out of the tube, however, it’s never going back in.
“It’s ridiculous,” King said. “I know Roger Goodell has made some mistakes — some big ones. I think the league as a whole has mishandled some situations. But I hope we’re moving away from suspending people just to appease the public We’ve really got to get out of this state.”
The eventual end game here hinges on Kraft, a long-time supporter of Goodell through some very tough times.
It’s pretty clear the NFL set the bar at four games for Brady to allow a reduction to two on appeal. If Kraft, one of the more powerful owners in the game, accepts a lesser slap on the wrist in an effort to shield the commissioner, it’s business as usual. However, if he is truly upset, Kraft could open Pandora’s Box.
From a legal standpoint, the NFL’s record is not very good when its decisions are placed in front of truly independent arbitrators. A league rubber stamp like Harold Henderson is always going to echo the original outcome, but if Kraft gets a Barbara Jones-type, the NFL’s heavy-handedness will not stand. Similarly if the NFLPA or Kraft think federal court is an option, history says the league is in trouble.
My best bet is Kraft lays down his sword to protect a shield Goodell has tarnished far more than Brady.
John McMullen is the NFL Editor at SportsNetwork.com.