Tom Brady's mistake was to fight an NFL commissioner obsessed with PR

Tom Brady 2

The debacle that is Deflategate has long stopped being about underinflated footballs – if it ever really was.

Because if this had anything to do with PSI readings or whether a Patriots employee sat on a Gillette Stadium toilet and put a needle in the valves of a bagful of footballs, the Patriots or Tom Brady would have been given a modest fine and the subject would be forgotten.

Playing with the inflation rate of game balls has always rated low on the league’s list of infractions. Just look at the wrist slap the Minnesota Vikings received for warming balls on a frosty day if you want to see how minimal an infraction ball deflation really is.

The battle between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Brady is an image war. It started when a talented and respected columnist was given a tip that the NFL was investigating the possibility that New England slightly deflated footballs in an AFC Championship Game they won by 38 points. The columnist did what talented and respected columnists do when given tips of such magnitude. He reported it. And ever since the $10bn league and the $150m quarterback haven’t been able to control the story, turning it into a runaway truck that looks likely to land them all in court.

Goodell has always policed his league with a moist index finger pointed in the breeze of public opinion. This stood in contrast to his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, who seemed to care little about perception when he made decisions. But the approach served Goodell well in his first year as commissioner when the owners and advertisers considered players’ off-field misbehavior to be the most serious issue facing the league. The severe punishments he gave Tank Johnson and Pacman Jones were arbitrary but they were lauded in the media.

When you react the most to the loudest cases, you paint yourself into a corner. Each oversized public spectacle requires an oversized public response. Last year, Goodell didn’t properly consider the justified anger festering around Ray Rice’s vicious assault on his fiancée when he first gave the running back a two-game suspension for the incident. And so he came back with a sloppy indefinite suspension that lasted until an arbitrator overturned it in late November. After being soft then hard on Rice he couldn’t afford to be seen as being gentle with Brady. Not with the story growing bigger by the day.

Brady’s early defiance when the deflation story broke put Goodell in an awkward spot. The quarterback had to understand Goodell gives the biggest punishments to the hottest controversies – especially when the commissioner believes people have not been honest with him. Surely Brady saw how Goodell overreacted in suspending Saints coach Sean Payton for a year over a locker room bounty program. He had to know something similar could happen to him if he was at all evasive in the face of an inferno.

Brady made the biggest mistake a player can make when trapped in a public relations case in Goodell’s league – he destroyed evidence, giving the commissioner a justification for a four-game suspension as well as taking a first- and fourth-round draft pick from the Patriots. While the NFL’s deal with the players union might not require Brady to give Goodell his cell phone, he had to know his failure to do so would be used against him. Even if he routinely destroys old cell phones as his advisors have said, he must have realized that discarding the phone with January’s texts would raise eyebrows.

Perhaps Brady can win a courtroom battle over the validity of Goodell’s request to hand over his phone. But legal semantics matter little in a public relations fight. Roger Clemens beat the US Department of Justice in court but that victory has not convinced Baseball Hall of Fame voters that he played the game steroid-free.

So here we are six weeks from the start of another NFL season with the league’s most important player suspended for a quarter of his team’s games, going to court with the commissioner over an alleged crime that is the football equivalent of jaywalking. By now Goodell and Brady should have found a way out of this situation. It’s a fight that does neither any good and yet they seem incapable of extracting themselves from a pointless standoff.

Goodell has swayed with the wind of public opinion so many times he had no choice but to go hard after a player the league does not wish to punish. Brady worried so much about perception he couldn’t duck a story that ballooned as the Super Bowl drew close. Now they stand on the brink of jumping hand-in-hand off a cliff over something so trivial as gripping a ball better on a rainy night.

Goodell should have been giving Brady a fine or a scolding in an office meeting this summer. Quarterbacks have been asking team employees to alter the balls to their liking for decades now. But a well-placed tip reported at exactly the right time put the public relations commissioner and image-conscious quarterback on a path to doom. How the man in charge of the world’s most-lucrative sports league and one of world’s biggest sports superstars couldn’t find a way out of this mess is the biggest story of all.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Les Carpenter, for theguardian.com on Thursday 30th July 2015 13.36 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010