Written by Jack Crawford
We stand at a crossroads.
Life is full of these. We decide, in some cases daily, whether to get out of bed, ask that person out, apply for that job, purchase that car, root for that team, wear that shirt. Life’s course is charted by a series of decisions – good, bad, consequential, relevant…or not. We live and die by those decisions, because they are ultimately responsible for establishing and defining, as human beings, who we are. This is a universal truth, and the fact that many of our decisions are influenced by exterior factors (wealth, vanity, security, lust) only serves to bolster that point.
Roger Goodell makes decisions for a living.
As the duly-appointed and current commissioner of the NFL, he’s responsible for the daily operation and transitional mechanics of pro football. He acts with a measure of authority that has been bestowed upon him by the owners of the NFL’s respective teams, and he – and they – have been rewarded for doing so, as the NFL has undergone an unprecedented financial boon during Goodell’s tenure, indicating savvy and astute marketing and promotion. A notable irony lies in the fact that Goodell has become the game’s most despised figure due mostly to his ham-handed, inconsistent, often bumbling approach to player discipline, and his apparent inability to cede a measure of punitive responsibility to other prominent league figures has become laughable in that context, although one must be reminded that the current collective bargaining agreement between players and management retains his rights to be all things in matters of sanction. Goodell is seen, fairly or not, as the NFL’s version of a keystone cop, who twirls about incessantly and amusingly, but ultimately falls short of meting out any degree of actual justice. His failure to apply realistic discipline in the Bountygate, Rice, and Peterson cases have all but trashed his credibility, and it’s the rare NFL fan that can openly tout Goodell as a successful commissioner these days.
Tom Brady also makes decisions for a living.
The New England Patriots embattled quarterback usually relegates his notable decisions to the game itself – should I audible to a run play? Should I look for Gronk in the flat, or Edelman in the inside slot? There are mounds of evidence to suggest that Brady’s on-field decision making is excellent, and that this aspect of his game is beyond reproach. Perhaps it is.
As we’re undoubtedly aware, Brady’s aura of integrity has been shattered by the “Deflategate” fiasco that has dominated the NFL headlines for the better part of the last four months. Rather than rehash the details, we’ll just say that Brady – and concurrently the Patriots – were disciplined by the league offices for conduct that violated established rules. These issues were documented in the now-infamous Wells report, which, although sketchy on details, appeared to point the finger of blame directly at Brady, who was subsequently fined and suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season. Brady has since appealed that ruling, despite the fact that his team did not, and it is widely believed that he is considering suing the NFL for damages should the outcome of the hearing fail to exonerate him.
Given the Patriots’ recent disciplinary history, notably the “Spygate” scandal, it’s no surprise that public sentiment outside of New England has been negative towards the Patriots and Brady in particular. Success often breeds contempt, but success with an air of wrongdoing can bring outright hatred. Brady and the Patriots have long been held as the NFL’s standard-bearers, a franchise known for conducting their business successfully and honestly, resulting in superior performances on the field. Granted, the Patriots suffered a substantial public-relations hit as a result of Spygate, which undermined their credibility and suggested that all was not as transparent and well-ordered as the New England front office would have had us believe. Brady has ultimately become the face of Deflategate and has been soundly reviled for it, as most of the NFL public understands that even the tiniest rules infraction by this “model” franchise amounts to something much larger in the context of a pattern of behavior. It indicates that the Patriots, particularly Brady, feel that it’s ok to break the rules as long as they can effectively get away with it.
And so the battle lines are drawn.
In the eyes of most NFL (read: not New England) fans, Brady’s suspension and fine should be upheld, perhaps increased. They feel that Goodell and subordinate Troy Vincent acted accordingly, given the previous indications of subversive behavior exhibited by the Patriots. And they feel that Brady is overreacting in his response to his punishment. By demanding apologies and full reinstatement, Brady has doomed himself to further ridicule – why, after his team has accepted its fate, would he consider legal action against the league for following suit? This indicates a pandering need to be accepted and loved, when most fans would have perhaps more respect for Brady if he simply offered a mea culpa of lesser degree (like this, for example, “Perhaps the balls were underinflated, and that’s on me. I should be aware of everything that transpires with the footballs, and I wasn’t. I’m sorry.”)
Fans of Brady, I suppose, can be forgiven. A large chunk of them have no coherent memories of the NFL prior to the Clinton administration, so to see a beloved urban icon eviscerated publically is undoubtedly traumatic, leading to a need to defend Brady and belittle the obvious conclusions the Wells report offers.
Goodell, in punishing Brady, may actually have done something that the rest of the NFL’s fanbases actually approve of. To be clear, Goodell is, for the duration of his tenure, never going to be taken seriously in this arena by anyone, but in dispensing punishment upon one of the NFL’s longest-tenured icons, he may have actually gained a measure of respect. Who knew, six months ago, that a quarterback of Brady’s stature would be responsible for rendering Goodell sympathetic?
Clouding things further is the now-tattered relationship between Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft, who were former golfing pals until the allegations surrounding Deflategate went public. Kraft has staunchly denied all wrongdoing despite accepting Goodell’s punishment, so any action by Brady to sue the league would undoubtedly – if not publicly – be supported by Kraft, who has intimated that he feels less secure in his dealings with the NFL offices than he once did.
But consider this: Have there ever been two men who were more roundly disliked on opposing sides of a scandal?
I’ve gone on record many times to criticize Goodell over matters of discipline and rule changes. To be blunt, I have no love for Goodell, who has taken the responsibilities of his office and perverted them to generate income, which indicates a fundamental lack of respect for the game. It’s tough to envision that Goodell sees the NFL as anything more than a large ATM.
That said, I’m no Brady fan either, as I find him to be disingenuous and unlikeable. Great quarterback? Sure. Lousy person? Affirmative, although I don’t know him beyond his public persona. It is possible to be both of those things.
So where would you sit? Having to pick a prevailing right/wrong interest here is similar to the dichotomy presented for this year’s Super Bowl participants (really, did anyone outside of Boston and Seattle care about that game?) The thought of applauding Goodell for something seems alien and suspicious; I suspect I’d have to shower afterwards. The notion of defending Brady is equally odious; until the truth of these matters is exposed, which will likely never happen, Brady will remain a figure of derision and contempt, and suing the NFL won’t change that.
Indeed, we’re at a crossroads.
There’s just no good direction to take.