So the NFL season will kickoff tonight. I’m mildly excited. My main enthusiasm is for the college game, which got off to an amazing start this past weekend.
However, the NFL’s kickoff game will be Pittsburgh against New England, which took on added interest when a judge threw out Tom Brady’s suspension for his role in Deflategate, reinstating the quarterback for at least the first game of the season.
My opinion on deflategate has waxed and waned. My first reaction, as someone not overly fond of the Patriots or Brady, was to support a hefty punishment, especially in light of their previous cheating (Spygate). But as time has gone on, my opinion has changed. I skimmed through the Wells report and came away … unimpressed by the case against the Patriots and particularly against Brady. And when I read Judge Berman’s decision, I found myself nodding my head and agreeing with everything he said.
You can read Bill James for a very good evaluation.
Goodell cannot make up industrial law as he goes along. As Berman stated it, “It is the ‘Law of the Shop’ to provide professional football players with advance notice of prohibited conduct and potential discipline.” There is no trail anywhere suggesting that a player can be suspended for an equipment tampering violation. No player has ever been punished in a like manner for a like offense—and, in fact, there have been similar offenses committed in the past, with no punishment at all directed at the players who benefitted. In 2009, a New York Jets employee was caught using a sideline heater to warm up the football that would be used to a attempt a field goal, making the ball travel further. The Jets’ kicker was present and obviously aware of the activity, but no action was taken against him. The league’s Competitive Integrity Policy states that the fine for a first offense for equipment tampering is $5,512. But since Mr. Brady did not tamper with the equipment and there is no real evidence that he was even aware that it had been done, even that fine would be problematic in this situation.
A phrase in the NFL Game Operations Manual states that if the footballs are tampered with in this manner “the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach and other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000.” However, the Game Operations Manual is not provided to players, is not subject to collective bargaining, and is not a basis for disciplinary action against players, even if that disciplinary action was within the range outlined in the directive.
Even the case that the deflation happened at all is weak. The Wells report specifically says that the Colts’ balls were inflated to 0.5 PSI more than the Patriots before the game (both were within the legal range). When you account for the cold, we’re talking about 0.4 PSI that the Patriots may have let out. I think the Patriots did probably let some air out of the balls but 0.4 PSI is … not a lot to hang your hat on. And the case that Brady knew about this is even weaker. The supposed damning texts really aren’t that damning. It’s more of him complaining about the league over-inflating the balls.
The most damning evidence, to many, is that Brady destroyed his cell phone. But there’s actually no rule in the NFL against destroying evidence and players who have done so have not previously been disciplined. (In the link, James goes into many reasons that Brady may not have wanted the leak-prone NFL to have private information on his phone. I’m not completely sold, but I think he has a point).
What the should the league have done about this? Well, the rules specify a $25,000 fine on the team. Given the Patriots’ history and the importance of the game, I think they could have gotten their million dollar fine without a problem. But when Goodell decided he wanted Brady’s head on his wall, he elevated the tentative conclusions of the Wells report to certainties and then stumbled right into a briar patch of labor law.
The long and short of this, to quote the great sage Walter Sobchak: This is not ‘Nam. This is collective bargaining. There are rules. Goodell has gotten himself into trouble numerous times trying to exercise control of the league. In the media vacuum before the Super Bowl, this story became massively overhyped. He saw an opportunity to exercise his authority again and a judge slapped him down again. It pains me to say this but the judge was right.
(PS – As a Steelers fan who lives in outskirts of Steeler Country, I’d love to see Brady not under center tonight. But I can’t honestly say he shouldn’t be. Damn.)
(PPS – As I was working on this post, the Imperial March from the Empire Strikes Back came on my iTunes shuffle. How appropriate.)