How Tom Brady Beat Roger Goodell


Aug 28, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) stretches prior to the game against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Deflategate has dominated the news cycle of the most popular sport in America for months. But talking about it like it’s an actual scandal at this point is kind of like asking to see President Obama’s birth certificate or denying climate change. By the way, I can’t wait until the aliens arrive and ask “so you mined all your planet’s most precious resources, combusted them, and knew it was destroying your home but still kept doing it?” Damn straight, baby! Let’s get another round of drinks over here! The party’s just starting!

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is arguably the most successful player in NFL history. He’s won four Super Bowls, played in six, was the MVP of three of them, and has led his team to division championships in twelve of his fourteen years in the league. His biggest victory to date, however, may not have been on the field, but in a courthouse in New York, where it was ruled today that the NFL and its embattled commissioner overreached in suspending Brady for being “generally aware” of a supposed scheme to deflate footballs in last year’s AFC Championship Game. Judge Richard Berman, who landed the case after the NFL filed suit in New York in an attempt to get its decision rejecting Tom Brady’s appeal confirmed, basically explained that the process by which the NFL exercised its judgment in the case was fatally flawed and the punishment, even if Brady was actually guilty, was disproportionate. Berman consistently excoriated the NFL during public hearings for the lack of evidence supporting its claim that the Patriots and Brady cheated at all.  

While fans outside of New England may think this is simply Brady the cheater winning on a technicality, it’s both much more complicated and more simple than that. First, the complicated: the NFL’s justice system most closely resembles that of Zimbabwe or North Korea. Commissioner Roger Goodell rules with an iron fist, often with little to no transparency and certainly no consistency.

To prosecute Brady, Goodell enlisted the services of Ted Wells, a litigation partner at the New York law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP. Despite spending months investigating the allegation that the Patriots deliberately deflated footballs, Wells found no concrete evidence in support of the claim. The best he could do was declare, now famously, that it was “more probable than not” that the  Patriots quarterback was “at least generally aware” that someone was deflating footballs intentionally.

Again, Wells never actually proved that anyone deflated footballs intentionally. What he did prove, ironically, is that the initial ESPN report declaring that 11 out of 12 Patriots’ footballs were found to be significantly deflated at halftime of the AFC Championship game was completely inaccurate. The original tweet from ESPN NFL insider Chris Mortensen reporting  these false facts has since been deleted. While Mortensen has never apologized or corrected the report, it’s notable that Sport’s Illustrated’s Peter King, who also reported it as fact, has apologized.  

The Wells Report included a shoddy statistical analysis from a California firm known as Exponent that claimed to prove that the inflation levels in the Patriots footballs was unnatural and as such must have been the result of tampering. That analysis has been widely and routinely criticized by independent scientists and statisticians. Science Times, the American Enterprise Institute, a nobel prize winning chemist, and many more have disproven the analysis of Exponent and of the Wells Report and supported the view that the deflation of footballs at halftime of the championship game was most likely caused by natural weather conditions. It’s worth noting that Exponent once argued that smoking doesn’t cause cancer and is widely viewed as a hired gun for special interests, so it’s no surprise that its work didn’t hold up to independent scrutiny.

Faced with a five million dollar legal bill from a report that didn’t actually provide evidence of tampering, despite concluding that it took place, the NFL acted swiftly and suspended Brady for four games as well as hitting the New England Patriots organization with a million dollar fine and stripping it of two draft picks (despite Wells stating that he believed the organization and its head coach had no knowledge of the supposed tampering). Then the fun really began. Brady and the NFL Player’s Association appealed. Goodell took far too long to reject the appeal and uphold the suspension. Then they took it to the courts.

What happened next is a special aspect of the American justice system: transparency. As the documentation from both sides was submitted to the court as evidence it became accessible for public scrutiny and with hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists eager to dissect it, scrutinized it was. What it revealed was that the NFL and its commissioner managed an unfair process riddled with errors. It seemed to show that the NFL’s executive office didn’t understand critical aspects of its collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL players association. The process was riddled with so many errors and inconsistencies that one had to wonder if the league had even read the CBA or understood at all the labor law it was based on.

But now for the simple and probably the reason why the NFL’s disciplinary process was so broken: there were no facts to support its case against Brady. It was more like the NFL tried to engineer the facts. No evidence to support the claim that footballs were even deflated. No evidence to support the claim that anyone intentionally deflated footballs. No evidence to support the claim that Tom Brady was probably generally aware of the alleged improper conduct. If the NFL had had the luxury of evidence, the process of prosecuting Brady probably would have been a lot easier.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft recently called Deflategate the most overblown story in sports history. The league spent millions of dollars investigating an equipment violation in the first half of a game the Patriots won 45-7 (they outscored the Colts 28-0 in the second half). It spent more time on this incident than it did on the Ray Rice investigation, the Adrian Peterson investigation, and probably any investigation in league history. Overblown, indeed.

Tom Brady beat the league and its commissioner in an all-too familiar fashion: remain patient and take advantage of your opponent’s mistakes. Thankfully for Brady, Goodell and the NFL made plenty of them. Their biggest one may have been overlooking Brady’s plan. They should have know better. He’s been employing it on the field his entire career.