The decision by a federal judge to overturn Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension over the so-called Deflategate scandal should not have surprised anyone who read the Investigative Report Concerning Footballs Used During the AFC Championship Game on January 18, 2015, (also known as the Wells Report), for multiple reasons. Brady never should have been suspended in the first place over the underinflated balls used during the 2015 AFC Championship Game, which the Patriots won by a score of 45–7. (Underinflated balls are easier to grip, throw, and catch.)
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell managed to screw things up from the moment the Wells Report was released on May 6. First of all, while the NFL rules for the 2014 season state that the ball must be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch (psi), there is nothing in those rules that states the temperature at which the pressure should be measured. It’s technically legal to inflate the footballs to the minimum legal pressure in a sauna and then bring them outdoors, which could have taken a ball from the legal 12.5 psi to a lower level. Yet, despite a Headsmart Labs study pointing to the possibility that weather conditions could account for underinflated balls, the changes for the 2015 NFL Rules did not set a specific temperature for the measurement of the pressure of the air in the football.
It is one thing to punish someone for a clear violation of league rules, but when the rules are this vague, how can one prove a deliberate plan to break them? The vagueness alone leaves enforcement up to the whim of the commissioner. One team might float by on footballs that are out of spec, while another (like the Patriots) could get hammered. No wonder Robert Kraft said, “I was wrong to put my faith in the league” in a July press conference.
Had Goodell simply suspended Brady based on the destruction of the cell phone, he would be on much more solid ground.
Goodell, though, was not through with making a mess of the Deflategate aftermath. After suspending Brady for four games, he chose not to have an independent arbiter handle the appeal. Instead, Goodell heard the appeal of his own ruling. Could he possibly have made the process appear any less fair?
Perhaps the one good argument that Goodell has advanced is that Brady had his cell phone destroyed. Had Goodell simply suspended Brady based on the destruction of the cell phone, he would be on much more solid ground — that the destruction of the phone impeded the NFL’s investigation. That would have made the suspension more likely to stick.
This is not the first time one of the commissioner’s rulings has been overturned. In 2014, Goodell initially suspended Ray Rice for two games for “conduct detrimental to the league” after he was arrested following a domestic-violence incident with his then-fiancée (now wife). After the horrifying abuse was revealed in its unvarnished form via a leaked hotel-security video, Goodell changed Rice’s suspension to one of indefinite length. Rice appealed, and after arbitration, the revised suspension was vacated. No decent person approves of Rice’s repugnant and abusive actions in that hotel elevator, but Goodell had no authority to change a sentence after the trial was over.
Roger Goodell has been NFL commissioner for nine years. The NFL has dealt with many significant challenges and scandals since he assumed that position, ranging from players’ personal conduct off the field to the aftereffects of concussions suffered on the field to shenanigans such as Spygate (in which the Patriots illegally videotaped the Jets’ sideline signals) and Deflategate. Goodell’s had multiple opportunities to affect real change in the NFL, and he has dropped the ball repeatedly. Perhaps NFL owners ought to ask whether his feckless leadership has become “conduct detrimental to the league.”
— Harold Hutchison is a longtime Chicago Bears fan.