Couched in Robert Kraft’s testy statement on Monday night was the tacit threat to challenge the NFL’s Ballghazi punishment. Whether this meant supporting Tom Brady’s appeal of a four-game suspension, or extended to the loss of the Patriots’ 2016 first round pick, was left unsaid. From an observer’s perspective, even just the former would be quite entertaining. The nuclear option, which would entail challenging the league’s authority and alleging anti-trust violations up and down the courts, as Al Davis did in the 1980’s, seems much less likely, but would be exquisite.
Before we go any further with this, it must be acknowledged how funny this situation has become. Where past NFL scandals have had real human harm — battered spouses or alleged deliberate intent to injure opponents — there are no real victims in Deflategate. Brady and the Patriots were hugely over-punished by a power mad autocrat. But, even if it was just a misdemeanor, they did probably cheat. They also should have known that Roger Goodell’s discipline pattern can only be explained not by the severity of the crime, but by cooperation with league investigation and sincere-sounding contrition. However, since nobody got hurt, all of this is hilarious, provided you’re not an access reporter who views any and every league matter through a sacrosanct prism. (And it should scare the hell out of Goodell that it feels like he’s lost even them on this one.)
As detailed in my profile of Howard Cosell last month, NFL bylaws required three-quarters of its owners to approve a relocation. In 1980, Al Davis was blocked from moving the Raiders from Oakland to Los Angeles, and he sued, arguing that this was a violation of anti-trust laws. While Davis won the decision and the team moved in 1982, ripples from the case remained contested in court all the way until 1989. It was a hill-to-die-on battle for Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who bitterly despised Davis, operated as if the NFL’s will and the law of the land were one in the same, and took it personally that Cosell disagreed from a legal standpoint.
Although the NFL has had inordinate economic success by any metric under Roger Goodell, Rozelle built a behemoth from what was essentially the ground floor. Between 1962 and 1982, television revenue alone skyrocketed from $4 million to $400 million. Between his utmost success and carefully calculated massaging, he was treated by much of the press almost as a deity.
Where the Davis suit exposed the first air of vulnerability in Rozelle two decades into his reign, Goodell had to have come close to losing his job last September in wake of the Ray Rice debacle. ESPN was airing player tweets that he was a buffoon while he stammered through a disastrous press conference and alcohol companies were making veiled threats to pull sponsorships.
It feels reasonable to say it was “more probable than not” Goodell would have been shitcanned last year if not for the unwavering support of Robert Kraft, who reportedly politicked on his behalf behind the scenes with other owners (as he’d been doing virtually and constantly since Goodell’s start), orchestrated press strategy, and offered a profound public vote of confidence. In September, he would’ve been the least likely candidate of the league’s 31 oligarchs to even conceive of becoming Goodell’s Al Davis.
And that’s why this is all so amusing! How can you not laugh at quotes like this (via MMQB’s Greg Bedard, who spent years on the Patriots beat for the Boston Globe)?:
"“I really don’t see how Robert is going to get past this with Roger,” says a source close to Kraft. “Robert was furious with the leaks and the investigation in the first place, but he figured they’d be exonerated. Now he’s out of his mind with anger.”"
Out of his mind with anger! For something that’s not in any way out of line with the body of work of the man he’s stumped for every step of the way. When his golden boy presumably did what he’s accused of. Bill Belichick caped up for Brady in an outlandish press conference where he purported to have mastered Physics in the preceding 48 hours, after he had essentially thrown his quarterback under the bus earlier. If he has turned radio silent since the Ted Wells report dropped last week, doesn’t that tell us everything we need to know?
What makes this more fantastically absurd is that it would be shocking if Brady did not succeed in at least partially reducing his suspension. He’s retained the services of Jeffrey Kessler, who has bludgeoned the league multiple times in recent memory. Even Peter King thinks Kessler will have a field day:
No matter what happens, we’re all gonna hear way too damn much about the Ideal Gas Law by the time this is all said and done. That sounds like a sticking point. My eyes gloss over every time I look at that formula, and there’s no qualitative explanation wherein I’d have any idea what it all means. My suspicion is that both sides inherently realize that’s true for almost everybody, and that’s why they’re both wielding it like Johnny Cochran’s Chewbacca Defense in South Park.
It’s far too early to ascertain whether Brady will attain a vacation of his punishment, or a mere reduction — or even lose, I guess. Furthermore, this is all down the road because Roger Goodell hasn’t even said yet whether he will hear the appeal or defer to an arbitrator. However, if this were ultimately to end up in the courts and Brady were to win, it would effectively make every NFL investigation toothless from here on out. Why cooperate and turn over your cell phone if Deny Deny Deny is proven a successful strategy?
And what if Kraft is petulant enough to challenge the NFL’s capricious and supposition-based Draft penalty? Would he go for the jugular and take Goodell to court? Or, would it be more prudent to undermine him behind the scenes, waiting for the next dastardly league scandal — which is not a matter of if, but how soon — to wipe the Commissioner out of power?
There are myriad ways this can all go from here, and many of them are wildly entertaining.