Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 3, 2015

Roger Is Wrong Again

A NOTE TO READERS: On Sports and Life will be at the Deutsche Bank Championship, the PGA Tour’s second FedEx Cup playoff series event this weekend. Sunday’s post will be delayed.

New England’s long nightmare is finally over. Justice has prevailed. Nearly eight months after an investigation began and almost four months after harsh penalties were imposed, the jackboot of the Commissioner’s office has been lifted from the neck of the region’s square-jawed white knight. As this is written Thomas Edward Patrick Brady, Jr., better and more simply known as Tom Terrific, once again breathes the air as a free man.

In a decision that will no doubt join the likes of Marbury v. Madison and Brown v. Board of Education in the pantheon of immortal opinions of American jurisprudence, Federal District Court Judge Richard Berman threw out NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s four-game suspension of the Patriots’ quarterback for whatever role he may have played in his team’s use of underinflated football’s in last January’s AFC Championship Game. Surely crowds are spontaneously gathering in Boston’s Copley Square even now to celebrate the triumph of all that is good and pure in the world over the forces of darkness.

Or at least that’s what one could readily conclude based on the breathless, wall-to-wall coverage by every media outlet in the region that began within moments of Judge Berman’s decision being released. Given the months of overinflated reporting about underinflated footballs all around the country, it’s probably not just New England where this story has pushed more substantive news below the page one fold. Though it’s likely that in other areas the roles of good and evil are filled by the opposite party than is the case in all of the local reporting.

But both a fan who goes to bed wearing pajamas embroidered with the Patriots logo and one who considers head coach Bill Belichick to be the Darth Vader of the sports world might be able to find common ground on three points after eight months of Deflategate.

First, the story is further proof, as if any were needed, of the NFL’s current dominance of the American sporting scene. It’s hard to imagine any story about any of our other games, much less one as ultimately trivial as this one, garnering the consistent headlines this one has. It’s joined by similarly intense coverage of other off-field stories involving the NFL. These run the gamut from analysis of every court filing relative to the proposed settlement of concussion litigation, to the multi-day media extravaganza that the NFL draft has become. Just one of the stories shoved aside to make room for reporting Berman’s decision in the New York Times was an investigation into whether Sony Pictures deleted or changed scenes in the forthcoming Will Smith movie “Concussion” in order to cast the NFL in a more favorable light. It seems unlikely that anyone at Paramount was similarly concerned about how MLB officials might react to 1989’s “Major League.”

Second, despite the fact that most of the off-field stories are negative, they’ve done little to diminish the NFL’s popularity. The last three offseasons have been dominated in order by the proposed settlement of the concussion class action lawsuit, the Ray Rice one-punch KO of his then-fiancé, and Deflategate. Yet the league continues to prosper even as it points to what will surely be the most overhyped event in its history, Super Bowl 50 next February in Santa Clara, California.

But whether the NFL’s unparalleled popularity and steady growth continues indefinitely is by no means certain. Sooner or later the steady stream of bad news has to have an impact. The small but persistent expressions of concern about whether children should be playing the inherently violent game are perhaps the first signs of a subtle shift in public attitudes. What the league needs is as much competence and skill from the top down at addressing off-field stories as its players display on the gridiron. But the third point on which Brady lovers and Brady haters can agree is that for someone who has often been called the most powerful man in sports, Commissioner Roger Goodell can seem anything but competent.

In 2012 Goodell’s predecessor Paul Tagliabue found that the Commissioner had grossly overstepped his authority in meting out punishment against the New Orleans Saints for paying bounties to defensive players for injuring opponents. More recently Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy have all successfully challenged sanctions imposed by Goodell in the courts. Now comes Berman’s decision throwing out the suspension of the four-time Super Bowl champion Brady.

The decision runs forty pages, but any hope that Goodell and the league had for a favorable ruling is dashed on page three. That’s where, in his first reference to the NFL-financed investigation by Ted Wells into the deflated football issue, Judge Berman chose to put quotation marks around the word independent. An independent investigation is the exact opposite of an “independent” one.

Berman cites plenty of detail to support his doubts about the Wells report, not the least being the fact that it was edited by the league’s general counsel. In the pages that follow he calls the league’s disciplinary process “fundamentally unfair,” notes that the NFL’s policy on competitive integrity which Goodell determined Brady had violated was never distributed to players, and derides the Commissioner’s approach as “industrial justice.”

The easy judgment is that Goodell will retain the support of the billionaires who own NFL franchises as long as the dollars keep flowing into their bank accounts. But at some point even the super-rich must care about how they are perceived. At a minimum, they’d probably like their league’s top official to be thought of as someone capable of making sound and reasoned decisions.

But by that rather low standard perhaps there is still hope for Roger Goodell. Next week the regular season opens with New England hosting Pittsburgh. After the newly free Tom Brady leads his team onto the field, the Patriots will unveil their latest championship banner. Late Thursday it was announced that when they do so in front of nearly 69,000 deliriously happy fans, the NFL Commissioner will not be in attendance. Now that’s a good decision.


  1. I just can’t take the NFL seriously anymore. It’s becoming like a reality T.V. show. Maybe if (when?) Donald Trump implodes, he can become the next NFL commissioner. I can’t think of a more appropriate person for the circus that has become pro football.

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