The new season of the National Football League begins this Thursday night. But as dedicated fans complete their fantasy drafts and excitement before the first official kickoff builds, we must admit this hasn’t been the typical NFL break. Instead, spring and summer 2015 have been the seasons of “Deflategate,” or what the National Review characterizes as “The Brady Botch.”
We all know the backstory, with a few definite, verifiable facts. During the January 18, 2015 AFC Championship contest between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, the Pats used underinflated game balls that resulted in an easier grip for superstar quarterback Tom Brady. Whether those balls were deliberately deflated to gain an illegal advantage for the Patriots is a question likely to be debated until long after Brady makes his way to the Hall of Fame.
What is certain is that other teams, including the Baltimore Ravens, lodged similar allegations against New England during the 2014 season. It is also not the first time that the Patriots, Brady and head coach Bill Belichick have been accused of football malfeasance. The website YourTeamCheats.com boasts an impressive catalog of alleged New England skullduggery, including the 2007 “Spygate” incident, which led to a $500,000 fine for Belichick and cost the team its first-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft.
It is also a fact that Tom Brady destroyed a cell phone associated with the NFL’s “Deflategate” investigation. He is under no legal obligation to explain why, and perhaps it’s in Brady’s long-term best interest never to utter another word about it. So I’m sure remaining skeptics trying to hold onto respect for the quarterback legend could have done without his early September Facebook post, written shortly after U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman overturned Brady’s four-game suspension:
“While I am pleased to be eligible to play, I am sorry our league had to endure this. I don’t think it has been good for our sport – to a large degree, we have all lost…I am also sorry to anyone whose feelings I may have hurt as I have tried to work to resolve this situation.”
It’s the “hurt feelings” language that’s really galling. The carefully chosen, dismissive rhetoric from a person who fails to comprehend the situation as anything more than a crabby personal inconvenience. Brady might as well have ended his post with the hashtag #SorryNotSorry. It has been abundantly clear throughout the episode that the only victim Brady really sees is himself, his rich, handsome, model wife having, rules-are-for-regular people self.
And in a way, it’s easy to comprehend Brady’s attitude. Shortly after the January controversy exploded, Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice had himself a good laugh on national television, discussing his own experience with breaking the rules. NBC Sports writer Mike Florioquoted Rice as saying on ESPN, “I know this might be a little illegal, guys, but you put a little spray, a little stickum on [gloves], to make sure that texture is a little sticky.” The football legend offered this as an alternative to underinflated balls, saving Tom Brady future hassles with embarrassing rule enforcement.
This should have been a scandal. The NFL banned stickum in 1981 – before Rice was drafted. Instead as Florio observes, “At a time when many were expecting Rice to claim that his words were taken out of context or that he was joking, [he] has taken to Twitter to admit that he did it, and that it was more than ‘a little illegal.’”
And there you have it. Integrity and regulation, the ease of flouting these standards, has long been a breezy joke amongst the NFL, its leadership and players. I’m not even going to touch Commissioner Roger Goodell and his “command” of the league throughout “Deflategate” and indeed any other crisis over the course of his nine-year tenure. There’s just not space enough in this particular column. He’s excessive when restraint is warranted, and criminally unreactive when strength is needed (one name: Ray Rice). I’m a woman. The league has a misogyny problem it tries to solve with pink jerseys in October. Concussions. I could go on.
But here’s the thing. I am a real fan. I’m one of those eager maniacs obsessing over the prospects of my fantasy team, looking for new spots to watch games with my boyfriend and wondering if Peyton Manning will get his groove back this season. I want more from the sport I love than this grotesque level of human cynicism.
The NFL would be wise to remember the hard learned lessons of Major League Baseball. After the 1994-95 league strike, and the tremendous fallout from a performance enhancement scandal that left dozens of high-profile stars with tattered careers and legacies, baseball officially surrendered its long run as America’s favorite pastime…to football.
I live in Chicago and hockey season starts next month. I’m just sayin’.