Long-run­ning De­flate­gate saga fi­nally nears its con­clu­sion

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY LIZ CLARKE

houston — When At­lanta Fal­cons of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Kyle Shana­han re­al­ized that his play­book for Sun­day’s Su­per Bowl had gone miss­ing amid the din of an NFL gala this past week at Houston’s Minute Maid Park, it was easy for some to as­sume that the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots some­how were cul­pa­ble. The Pa­tri­ots, af­ter all, are the fran­chise whose record of sus­pect be­hav­ior in­cludes il­le­gally video­tap­ing op­pos­ing coaches’ sig­nals, un­ex­plained tech­nol­ogy out­ages for vis­it­ing teams and, of course, the con­tro­versy over al­legedly doc­tored foot­balls that has dogged the team, and the NFL, for two years.

As it turned out, the play­book had been in­ad­ver­tently picked up by a Bay Area sports­writer who has been work­ing the Su­per Bowl for decades; the writer had mis­taken Shana­han’s back­pack for his own when leav­ing a group in­ter­view with the Fal­cons co­or­di­na­tor. With a few fran­tic phone calls, the mix-up soon was sorted out.

But given the cloud of sus­pi­cion that rightly or wrongly al­ways seems to fol­low the Pa­tri­ots, they seemed the likely sus­pects in a mis­taken case of shenani­gans aimed at get­ting an un­fair edge.

The NFL’s De­flate­gate scan­dal was for­mally re­solved July 15, fol­low­ing 18 months of al­le­ga­tions, re­but­tals, in­ves­tiga­tive re­ports and le­gal wran­gling. It ended when Pa­tri­ots quar­ter­back Tom

Brady an­nounced he was aban­don­ing his le­gal chal­lenge to the league’s four-game sus­pen­sion for his al­leged part in an un­proven scheme to im­prop­erly de­flate foot­balls be­fore the AFC cham­pi­onship game fol­low­ing the 2014 sea­son.

But more than six months later, on the NFL’s big­gest, gaud­i­est, most cel­e­bra­tory and self-con­grat­u­la­tory week­end of the year, De­flate­gate is the nar­ra­tive that won’t go away as 140,000 fans stream into Houston and play­ers pre­pare to take the field Sun­day at NRG Sta­dium for Su­per Bowl LI.

De­flate­gate — and the NFL’s han­dling of it — has stoked Brady’s quest for on-field vin­di­ca­tion, if not out­right re­venge. It has gal­va­nized Pa­tri­ots fans. It has set up the prospect of a Su­per Bowl tro­phy pre­sen­ta­tion that could stretch be­yond awk­ward if NFL Com­mis­sioner Roger Good­ell is faced with pre­sent­ing the Vince Lom­bardi Tro­phy to Pa­tri­ots owner Robert Kraft, whom he as­sessed a $1 mil­lion fine and docked two draft picks in the con­tro­versy. And it has been mocked by pub­li­ca­tions such as The Onion, which re­cently posted a satir­i­cal NFL-spon­sored “con­test” in which the win­ner gets to watch Sun­day’s Su­per Bowl from the com­mis­sioner’s suite, present the tro­phy to the win­ning team and shake the MVP’s hand while Good­ell watches from home.

Sun­day’s game be­tween the Pa­tri­ots and the Fal­cons ought to put De­flate­gate drama to rest. Re­gard­less of the out­come, both the Pa­tri­ots and the NFL al­ready claim vic­tory in the long-run­ning le­gal bat­tle.

De­flate­gate’s cost

The saga be­gan when a re­port sur­faced in the days af­ter the Jan. 18, 2015, AFC cham­pi­onship game that the Pa­tri­ots had used de­flated foot­balls in their 45-7 vic­tory over the In­di­anapo­lis Colts; the re­port said the foot­balls were be­low the min­i­mum stan­dard (12.5 PSI), pre­sum­ably to give Brady a com­pet­i­tive ad­van­tage. Amid ve­he­ment de­nials by Brady, Kraft and Pa­tri­ots Coach Bill Belichick, the NFL con­fis­cated all 12 foot­balls used by the team, found 11 un­der­in­flated and or­dered an investigation that con­cluded it was “more prob­a­ble than not” that a will­ful rules in­frac­tion oc­curred.

Kraft ac­cepted the fran­chise’s costly pun­ish­ment — be­liev­ing that pay­ing the $1 mil­lion fine and sur­ren­der­ing a first- and fourthround draft pick would soften Brady’s sus­pen­sion or pos­si­bly get it waived en­tirely. It didn’t, so the NFL Play­ers As­so­ci­a­tion took Brady’s case to Fed­eral District Court in Man­hat­tan and won. The league ap­pealed, and the fed­eral ap­peals court ruled in its fa­vor, re­in­stat­ing the sus­pen­sion. That left Brady’s le­gal team with no re­course but the Supreme Court. At that point, the quar­ter­back stood down, ac­cept­ing the fourgame ban­ish­ment.

None­the­less, the play­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tion claims De­flate­gate was a vic­tory on two points.

“Ev­ery player in the NFL and ev­ery fan now un­der­stands the role of our union in pro­tect­ing the rights of play­ers, no mat­ter what,” Ge­orge Atal­lah, as­sis­tant ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the NFLPA. More­over, he ar­gued, for­mer pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s widely pub­li­cized quip at a 2015 La­bor Day rally in Bos­ton — “If Brady needs a union, we def­i­nitely need unions” — un­der­scored for a broader au­di­ence the vi­tal role that unions play for work­ers.

NFL of­fi­cials de­clined to com­ment for this story. But one league of­fi­cial, speak­ing on a con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the topic’s sen­si­tiv­ity, said it was im­per­a­tive the league ap­peal the ini­tial ver­dict be­cause what was at stake was a four-decades-old, mu­tu­ally agreed-upon process of met­ing out player dis­ci­pline. Whether Good­ell was too meek or overly puni­tive with Brady can be de­bated, the of­fi­cial said. What was in­vi­o­lable, he ar­gued, was a dis­ci­plinary process that was col­lec­tively bar­gained be­tween the NFL and NFLPA and had been af­firmed by both par­ties as re­cently as 2011.

What, then, was the ul­ti­mate cost of the NFL’s le­gal vic­tory?

In pure mon­e­tary terms, the NFL spent be­tween $2.5 and $3 mil­lion to fi­nance an in­de­pen­dent investigation, and le­gal costs for the league, the team and the play­ers’ union were es­ti­mated to have been sig­nif­i­cantly higher.

Chicago-based sports busi­ness an­a­lyst Marc Ga­nis points to the roughly 10 per­cent drop in NFL TV rat­ings at the sea­son’s out­set as one. Brady’s ab­sence for the first four games of 2016, Ga­nis be­lieves, was partly re­spon­si­ble, along with the re­tire­ment of quar­ter­back Pey­ton Man­ning and sus­pen­sion of Pitts­burgh run­ning back Le’Veon Bell.

In the eyes of many fans, the league’s im­age — and that of Good­ell — as fair and even­handed took a beat­ing as what be­gan as an at­tempt to up­hold the value of fair play took on char­ac­ter­is­tics of a per­sonal at­tack.

Said Ga­nis: “You have great fans in New Eng­land — among the best in the NFL. Pas­sion­ate. They love their team; they love Tom Brady. And you had them look­ing at the com­mis­sioner as their op­po­nent and the league of­fice as their op­po­nent.”

‘What’s right for the league’

Atal­lah, the NFLPA ex­ec­u­tive, doesn’t be­lieve De­flate­gate alone chipped away at Good­ell’s cred­i­bil­ity. He be­lieves it is merely one in a string of mis­steps by the NFL front of­fice that has shaken fans’ con­fi­dence. “The Brady case and the De­flate­gate drama was merely the most re­cent ex­am­ple of the league mak­ing mis­takes that took most of the NFL fans — and cer­tainly Pa­tri­ots fans — for fools,” Atal­lah said.

A MoveOn.org pe­ti­tion call­ing for Good­ell’s ouster in­cludes a long list of fans’ griev­ances against the com­mis­sioner. Among them: over­reach­ing his author­ity, tak­ing “the fun out the game,” wag­ing a vendetta against the Pa­tri­ots, fail­ing to force play­ers to stand for the na­tional an­them and us­ing De­flate­gate to di­vert at­ten­tion from the con­cus­sion is­sue.

Wed­nes­day in Houston, the com­mis­sioner’s an­nual Su­per Bowl news con­fer­ence lacked that level of ac­ri­mony. But there was no short­age of ques­tions about Good­ell’s judg­ment in the han­said dling of De­flate­gate or his per­ceived cow­ardice in stay­ing away from the Pa­tri­ots’ Gil­lette Sta­dium all sea­son.

Good­ell ex­plained that while he un­der­stood the pas­sion of Pa­tri­ots fans on the is­sue, he was driven not by pas­sion but by a re­spon­si­bil­ity to up­hold the NFL’s in­tegrity and rules for all 32 teams. As Kraft looked on from the front row, Good­ell cast the con­flict as sim­ply a dis­agree­ment be­tween busi­ness part­ners.

“It’s not all per­sonal [in] na­ture, which I know peo­ple like to make it,” Good­ell said. “But for us, it’s about mak­ing sure we do what’s right for the league long term.”

“Per­sonal” is surely how De­flate­gate seemed to for­mer Pa­triot Tedy Br­uschi, a three-time Su­per Bowl cham­pion-turned-ESPN an­a­lyst. “This was a unique dis­trac­tion mainly be­cause I think it was tar­geted at one per­son, and it was tar­geted at Tom,” Br­uschi said in a con­fer­ence call this past week, adding that he be­lieved the ex­pe­ri­ence had deep­ened the Pa­tri­ots’ re­solve.

Brady, 39, cer­tainly never played bet­ter over a four-game stretch than he did upon his Oct. 9 re­turn from sus­pen­sion, lead­ing the Pa­tri­ots to vic­to­ries over Cleve­land, Cincin­nati, Pitts­burgh and Buf­falo in suc­ces­sion while throw­ing 12 touch­down passes and no in­ter­cep­tions along the way and av­er­ag­ing a 132.2 quar­ter­back rat­ing.

Still, there’s no doubt the first­bal­lot NFL Hall of Famer has been dam­aged by the con­tro­versy. It can’t be ex­punged from his bi­og­ra­phy, or from the minds of NFL fans who will al­ways re­gard him as a cheat.

While Brady has spo­ken with his ster­ling play, his fa­ther laid bare his an­i­mus to­ward Good­ell dur­ing Su­per Bowl week in an in­ter­view with San Fran­cisco’s KRON 4 News. “He went on a witch hunt and went in way over his head and had to lie his way out nu­mer­ous ways,” Tom Brady Sr. said, adding that his son was ul­ti­mately sus­pended not for proven wrong­do­ing but be­cause the court up­held Good­ell’s right to sus­pend him.

The sad truth is that De­flate­gate could have been avoided had the NFL and the Pa­tri­ots reached a set­tle­ment fol­low­ing the NFL’s investigation. But both sides dug in, their in­tegrity at stake. And what played out in the pub­lic and in court proved costly for both.

Speak­ing to a hand­ful of re­porters dur­ing the gala that kicked off Su­per Bowl LI pro­ceed­ings, Kraft said he wanted to share a piece of ad­vice from the Old Tes­ta­ment when the topic of De­flate­gate was raised. He quoted: “There is noth­ing bad that hap­pens that doesn’t have good as­so­ci­ated with it.”

De­flate­gate had gal­va­nized the Pa­tri­ots, he said, and brought them to this spe­cial mo­ment — a chance to com­pete for a fifth Su­per Bowl cham­pi­onship. It’s a mo­ment he in­tends to sa­vor.

Then, Kraft of­fered a fi­nal thought.

“Jeal­ousy and envy are in­cur­able dis­eases,” he said. “That’s the way of the world. And we’ll try to take it in and turn it into some­thing that’s an ad­van­tage.”

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