With Tom Brady's hearing with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell just completed, I went back and found this column I'd written, but not published, back in the end of May. It remains relevant, although you'll see by the update that the questions around the so-called 'deflategate' are even more unresolved now than they were then....
There is a basic question in the 'deflategate' 'scandal' which has not even been addressed. Why? Or as the lawyers might say, 'qui bono'?
If we accept that, as the Wells report says, the refs left the Pats' balls at 12.5 (before releasing air when they extracted their gauges), and we accept that, again according to the Wells report, Brady preferred the balls at 12.5, was there any good reason for Boston's second most famous Bird to allegedly take the dozen balls into the toilets and deflate them all in a minute a half, allowing time for him to wash his hands? If the balls were as Brady wanted, why even bother?
Ted Wells is Roger Goodell's equivalent of 'Lord' Hutton—the famous safe pair of hands who will get you the inquiry result you want. Reading his report was less like reading an inconsequential version of the Warren Report and more like reading Gerald Posner's apology for Warren. Evidence is presented selectively. Evidence that points against his conclusions is buried in footnotes. Conversations are interpreted, often against logic, to reinforce his conclusions. And of course the physical 'evidence' is laughable, and the major witness' own best-recollections are accepted in every instance except the one that would make that evidence laughable.
The most interesting bit of Wells is the series of supposedly incriminating texts between Boston's second-most famous Jastremski and Bird, now known as 'the Deflator'. Interesting because they have nothing to do with the Colts game, but date back to a Jets game in October when the officials had the balls pumped up to nearly 16psi, far higher the legal max of 13.5. The officials will not suspended, obviously. Brady was livid because he felt the game balls were like Aaron Rodgers balloons (Rodgers has said he regularly over-inflates the balls to 16 before games, hoping the refs don't bother to let much air out). He, and other QBs are prima donnas on this issue, and the reality is it's probably more psychological than anything else, but all the NFL needed to do was supply the game balls themselves, and not leave it to each team and their quarterbacks. That's what most sports would do. Anyway, the text exchange was in October. Brady's message had months to sink in. Now I accept you can assume his wrath was such that the equipment guys felt compelled to deflate balls already at 12.5, but that assumption doesn't seem to me any more likely than the idea that they might have just left the well-enough 12.5 alone.
Ignore the fact the Colts seem to have done their own air-check during the first half, thus further deflating at least one ball, which in itself was illegal. It lends to the appearance that they seemed to have a carte blanche from the league to pursue the Pats. Ignore than a former Jets-front office employee now working for the league was on the sidelines and told a Pats' official 'we've got you now', though in language more colourful than that. Ignore than someone from the NFL office, possibly the same person, released to the press untrue readings, much lower than the officials' half-time ones, immediately after the game, which seemed to make a serious case for tampering which of course was not made. The script for the 'scandal' was laid out before anything that might suggest otherwise could be considered. It was dubbed 'deflategate', and once the suffix 'gate' gets attached to anything in the media nowadays, it takes on an import whether it deserves to or not.
Lots of people wondered if the Wells report were being delayed in order to create another big story for May. Certainly it was leaked before the punishments were announced so the league could try to gauge the psi of public opinion as accurately as Walt Anderson and his crew did the balls. But this was not the kind of publicity the NFL needs, or didn't they listen when the commissioner was roundly booed every time he took the stage in Chicago to announce draft picks (unless he was accompanied by Dick Butkus)? If he thought to curry favour with the majority of NFL fans who are Pats haters, he may have guessed wrong wrong.
Tom Brady will appeal his four-game suspension, and it will inevitably be reduced. The NFLPA will fight hard for a neutral arbitrator; Goodell has long since forfeited any neutrality, and has an 0-3 record vs real arbitrators so far. But the odd thing is there is no benefit for Goodell himself to cave in on the punishment; he can wait for legal appeals and neutral arbitrators to do that, if Brady wants to pursue it further.
But more fascinating was the reaction of Pats' owner Robert Kraft, a staunch ally of Goodell's who was demanding an apology back in January, and after the report came out issued a rebuttal which effectively destroyed it. But then he announced he would not appeal the fine against his team: $1 million, a first and a fourth-round draft pick. Even if you accept Brady and his ball bunch were guilty, given that Wells himself exonerated the team, coaches, front office and owner from any knowledge, much less participation in the scam, this seems draconian. And in front of a neutral arbitrator, indefensible. I think the implications of removing the commissioner's authority vis a vis the teams (and their owners) in favour of an arbitrator was a can of worms Kraft did not want to open, in the best interests of the league itself.
Which is a shame, because we came in here discussing the draft, and by taking away draft picks you are punishing the team and its future, you're punishing the players already there, and you are punishing the fans. Punishment is supposed to fit the crime. But in this case, most of the air has been let out of the magistrates.
UPDATE: A number of independent reports, most notably from the American Enterprise Institute, have torn the Wells Report to shreds, pointing out flaws in the basic assumptions that were exacerbated by its slipshod methodology. In the light of those reports, it would be in Brady's interest to argue that there was no tampering whatsoever, and if eventually Goodell or an arbitrator agreed, the penalties against the Patriots would have to be overturned as well. No date has been set for when a ruling from the Commissioner on whether he will judge himself to have made a mistake or over-reacted will be released.