Woody Allen once remarked that August is the month in which psychiatrists customarily go on vacation. “Every summer,” he pointed out, “New York is full of people who are crazy until Labor Day.” The same, it seems, holds for the federal court system. Submitted for your approval: one Richard Berman, presiding judge in a federal district court in Manhattan. To Berman’s eternal misfortune, he has been handed the ongoing burlesque pitting the National Football League and its commissioner against the New England Patriots and their quarterback regarding the inflation of the footballs in last year’s AFC Championship Game. To his eternal credit, however, Berman already sounds pretty fed up with the whole business.
“While this litigation is ongoing, it is appropriate (and helpful) for all counsel and all parties to this case to tone down their rhetoric,” Berman wrote. “The earth is already sufficiently scorched.”
Translation: “I didn’t spend three years in law school to preside over this bucket of manure. Get your act together, the both of you.”
Bravo to Judge Berman for being the only person entangled in this endless fandango who is making any sense at all. Since our last episode, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell upheld the four-game suspension of Tom Brady handed down by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell1 some time during the Mesozoic Era, thereby endorsing the judicial philosophy of Lewis Carroll. New England owner Robert Kraft, who, in May, had accepted a huge fine and the loss of first- and fourth-round draft picks — after previously demanding an apology from practically everyone back in January — returned belatedly to the parapets and intimated that Goodell had double-crossed him. The whole mess ended up in federal court, where it had been headed from the jump. Enter Judge Berman, who may be wondering at this point why he threw away that flier from the truck-driving academy 30 years ago.
The league tried to circumvent this problem by having NFL vice-president Troy Vincent technically deliver the original suspension. One of the NFLPA’s arguments in court will be that Vincent doesn’t have the authority to impose discipline.
Meanwhile, Goodell’s strong support of the NFL’s own decision gave every preening moralist within reach of a keyboard a chance to yell about “cheating” and what ever can we tell the children? More than a few people advised Brady to suck it up and take the penalty because you can’t fight City Hall, overlooking the fact that, in this particular case, City Hall is presided over by a guy who couldn’t pour juice out of his loafers if the instructions were written on the heel.
And, then, training camp started, and Brady returned to the practice field and was treated like the pope on parade. Early on, he made a nifty one-handed grab of a pass from wideout Julian Edelman, and it got YouTube’d to a fine powder within minutes. Of course, it is interesting that Brady, like all suspended players, is going to be “allowed” to practice with his teammates, and “allowed” to play in the annual exercise in barefaced consumer fraud that is the NFL’s preseason. I’m sure the league only has his best interests at heart.
John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe
For the past week, as I watched what had been a comical episode turn into Armageddon-with-seltzer-bottles, I wondered where all of this Golden Boy stuff had come from. (I have a certain interest in Brady and his career.) The criticism of Brady over what he may or may not have ordered done to the footballs in January seemed so wildly out of proportion to the alleged offense — which, again, is tantamount to a hockey stick with an excessively curved blade, or Whitey Ford’s entire repertoire of scuffballs — that I rapidly came to the conclusion that Brady was being pilloried for what other people had made out of him.
In the entire year I spent rummaging through his existence, I never heard one person accuse Brady of arrogance or any sense of entitlement. He has had a good life and a great career. Now, though, not only are we hearing about deflated footballs, but about demolished cell phones and, on one especially rancid local sports-radio station, whatever “else” the league might “have” on him. Peggy Noonan once opined, “Is it irresponsible to speculate? It is irresponsible not to,” thereby neatly turning 100 years of journalism on its head until its brains ran out of its ears. That is where Tom Brady is now, thanks to a piddling bit of gamesmanship and a league that can’t get out of its own way.
Let us stipulate for the moment that Brady handing his cell phone over to his assistant to be destroyed isn’t very good optics. (Jesus, Tom, you have to delegate that job?) But consider the entire arc of events: The Colts narc the Patriots out to the league office. Because the NFL, in its judicial functions, combines the investigative genius of Inspector Clouseau with the good faith of a Gaboon viper, the Patriots are caught, and leaks occur that make the situation seem worse than it is. A preposterous feeding frenzy starts. New England wins the Super Bowl. Brady plays a spectacular game. Goodell hands down his punishment via lackey. Brady appeals. Goodell announces that he will hear the appeal. The NFL issues an in-house report that is a masterpiece of prosecutorial ambiguity. Goodell upholds the original punishment. The story about the “destroyed” cell phone is released at precisely the right moment to make the original offense, whatever the hell it was, look worse.
OK, now read all of that again and imagine that you are Tom Brady. Why in the name of Baal would you trust these people with your personal phone records? Why would you believe any of their assurances concerning your privacy? Given these people, shouldn’t you exhaust all legal avenues before taking whatever consequences there are? That’s all Brady — and, it should be said, the NFLPA — is doing now. Brady doesn’t owe anything to his image, or to the caricature that exists of him in the minds of other people. If he thinks he has a case, then he has a perfect right to pursue it for as long as he wants. This may even be strategically deft, since history tells us that the longer something goes on, the more chances that Goodell and the NFL will have to make a dog’s breakfast out of themselves.
I remain convinced that the footballs in the AFC Championship Game were tailored to Brady’s specifications, just as all the footballs used in every game are tailored to the specifications of the competing quarterbacks. (That was the whole point of the letter, signed nine years ago by Brady, and by Peyton Manning, among other quarterbacks, requesting that offenses be allowed to use their own footballs when on the road. That the NFL didn’t find this proposal laughable is the ur-screwup in this whole affair.) I believe that Brady knows what his own specifications are, and that he communicated them to the people handling the footballs. Period. Everything else is stuff and nonsense and empty air. Everything else is another measure of how much in the NFL has passed from the control of the commissioner and into the hands of the various plutocrats for whom he works. He can’t keep one set of owners from squealing on another owner? He can’t keep his franchises from acting on ancient grudges that don’t matter a damn to anyone except the walking egos involved in them? Ever since January, this endless, misbegotten hootenanny has been more than a test of Tom Brady’s character. It’s been a test of Roger Goodell’s leadership, and he has proved to be the Gregory Hines of stepping on hidden rakes.
I have no idea what the ultimate outcome of this will be, and I don’t even really care anymore. I’m with Judge Berman. Everybody just shut up for a while, please. But I have no confidence that this view will prevail. It’s summer, after all. Everybody’s just going to be crazy until Labor Day.