Opinion: NFL punishes Brady for refusing to aid in its witch hunt

"Ted Wells is independent because I SAY SO, DAMMIT"
The ongoing Deflategate saga has felt a bit like a boxing match between Tom Brady and the league office from the start, with either side quick to throw out a counter to every jab thrown it's way. With Roger Goodell seemingly on the ropes after weeks of getting battered by both the scientific community and prominent journalists alike, the league yesterday landed a momentum swinging haymaker yesterday, using Tom Brady's admission of destroying his cell phone as justification to maintain Brady's four game suspension.

While the fight will continue in court, this is a crushing blow for Brady on the PR front. Those who choose too now have all the ammunition they need to diminish Brady's legacy, at least in their minds. I can hear the Jets fans now. "Not only did he cheat, but he destroyed the evidence #Cheatriots"

It's sad to see the situation get to this point, but here we are. No matter that the effects of the alleged deflation on the outcome of the game were non-existent. Nevermind that multiple scientific studies have proven a football could easily drop from acceptable legal PSI levels to illegal levels just from being moved from the warm locker room to the cold field (the fact that the league's new measures for inspecting ball pressure hasn't included an expansion of the 1 PSI legal range cannot be explained by logic). Hell, never mind that the league still has NO EVIDENCE that unusual deflation even occurred.

If the fact that the league has pursued this matter this doggedly despite it's flimsy case doesn't call it's impartiality into question, the way they've approached the investigation from the get-go should. The investigation began with a January 19 letter from NFL senior VP David Gardi to Robert Kraft containing inflation figures dramatically lower than the ones eventually provided by the Wells report. No correction or explanation for this misinformation was ever given. This was followed up by ESPN's Chris Mortensen's report that 11 of the 12 Patriots balls were found to be underinflated by about 2 pounds each. This blatantly false information could have only come from the leaky league office, but the PR damage was already done by the time the story hit the airwaves.

This was followed by the league deciding that it was worth approximately $5 million to commission a report to get to the bottom of this ball deflation scandal. After all, the integrity of the game was at stake! Of course, heating a ball to soften it up on the sidelines during a cold game would provide an equivalent tactical advantage, an offense that was barely met with a shrug from the league when it was the Panthers and Vikings caught in the act this fall. According to Goodell's statement from yesterday, that was totally different because there was "no player involved". I think we need a multimillion dollar investigation, just be sure no Panthers players might have had general knowledge of that violation.

Apparently, $5 million doesn't go as far as it used to, as all Ted Wells was able to come up with after all those billable hours was the conclusion that it was "more probable than not" that Brady had "general awareness" of the balls being deflated. Of course, even that extremely vague conclusion required a seasoned lawyer's best logical gymnastics and spin of language to support. It also based it's findings about the balls being deflated (you know, the actual offense this whole scandal was allegedly about) on middle-school level science that has since been torn apart by multiple impartial scientific journals.

Most startling amongst Wells' attempts to manipulate data was his inexplicable decision to ignore referee Walt Anderson's recollection of using the "logo gauge" to test the PSI levels of the balls pre-game. Anderson is built up as an infallible symbol of inherent fairness by the Wells report, right up to the part where the measurements from the gauge he claims he used would clear the Patriots of any wrong-doing. It's then that Wells concludes that his memory must be wrong, and plows right ahead with a different set of data that better supports the conclusion he was clearly paid to produce.

Tom has every right to be pissed right now
Given the context of what looks, smells and quacks like a witchhunt, it's hard to blame Brady or the Patriots for being extremely guarded and paranoid throughout the process. Given how eager the league office had been to leak any damaging out-of-context tidbit to the press, it's easy to see why Brady would refuse to hand over his personal cell phone.

Now, don't get me wrong. The optics of Brady destroying his phone in the midst of an NFL investigation look terrible. Furthermore, his proposed solution of providing the league with a spreadsheet of those contacted, allowing the league to painstaking search to piece together those missing communications was pretty clearly a "F you" move to the league, aimed at further inconveniencing their already beyond protracted search.

Given how the whole process has felt like an attempt to justify the NFL's predetermination of guilt on the part of Brady and the Pats, can you blame him for not playing ball and making things as difficult as possible for the league?

Keep in mind, the notion that Brady "destroyed evidence" is a massive red herring presented by the league. Surprisingly, the 2011 CBA does not grant subpoena power to Goodell, Wells or anyone else in league matters, meaning that they had no legal right to the contents of Brady's phone, destroyed or not. There's also the fact that Brady surrendering his phone would be setting a terrible precedence for his fellow players. Goodell gives no explanation in yesterday's statement for his rejecting the completely logical premise that Brady would be following the advice of counsel by not giving up his phone. Again, a phone the league had no legal right to.

Furthermore, it's not like the actual information on Brady's phone couldn't be retrieved. Brady's team did offer the league a spreadsheet of everyone Brady had contacted on the "destroyed phone", giving them an avenue to retrieve said texts through the phones of those individuals. A convoluted process, sure, but also an avenue to information that Brady wasn't legally required to give up. Despite this, the league rejected the offer and didn't even look at the spreadsheet because, in Roger Goodell's words, it "wasn't practicable".

Wasn't practicable?! How has any part of this process been practicable? Was paying Wells over $5 million for his sloppy take-down attempt practicable? Was allowing an unproven minor violation to be blown up into a six month process, during which both the Commissioner and one of the league's biggest stars have been dragged repeatedly through the mud, practicable? Was waiting 35 freaking days after hearing Brady's appeal to make a ruling practicable? After all that time, engergy and money spent, what would be the extra week or two of sifting through Brady's contacts and recovering what they could? After all, it would be more information than they were granted during the investigation, when Brady exercised his legal rights and informed them his phone contents would not be made available.

Keep in mind, these were Goodell's exact words on July 21st, merely a week before the decision to uphold Brady's suspension was announced, when asked about the Brady appeal:

“We are focused on it. We are obviously being very thorough and want to make sure we consider all aspects of his appeal. We will make a decision as quickly as possible.”

Apparently, that need to be thorough extended to covering the league's ass legally, but not towards actually seeking all information that could lead to an unbiased decision. The league could have gotten at least some of the information they were denied during the investigation, and declined to pursue it. They still had enough time to clumsily distance the Brady incident from the Panthers ball warming incident and Brett Favre's 2009 fine for non-compliance with an investigation, all while trying to equate possibly knowing about a ball boy allegedly taking a tick of air out the ball with PED usage.

Unfortunately for Brady and the Pats, just like with the false Mortensen report, the PR damage was already done the second this story hit the airwaves. In the eyes of the masses, it won't matter that Wells was never going to see the contents of Brady's phone. It won't matter that he had no legal right to said contents. All that will matter is that Brady destroyed his phone, making him a cheater AND a liar incapable of winning without bending the rules. (Wait, you mean he went 13-15 against an historically great defense in the fourth quarter to win his fourth championship just 5 months ago, all with legal balls? Get out of here with your logic!)

The battle will now move onto court, where the phone will take on minimal significance compared to the CBA mandated process and whether it was properly upheld. However, it remains clear that the NFL, buoyed by nefarious characters like former Jets front office man Mike Kensil, had an ax to grind on this issue, and came out from the start with irregular aggression given the offense. They approached this like a fight from the get-go, both from a legal and PR standpoint. In the end, Brady was ultimately punished for fighting back and not aiding their attempt to frame him more than anything else.

Talk about impracticable demands.