The only thing we know about Ballghazi with any degree of certainty is what will happen next: Roger Goodell’s decision will be challenged in court. The NFLPA has announced its intention to sue—with Tom Brady’s backing—likely in a Minnesota federal court, where Judge David Doty has a history of pro-player rulings. The NFL has already filed in New York in an preemptive attempt to gain a more favorable venue. But these legal machinations will be all about whether Goodell overstepped his authority and the NFL’s CBA. They will not aim to answer the big question: what, exactly, did Tom Brady do?
The NFL obviously believes Brady is guilty of, if not specifically directing Patriots assistants to deflate his footballs, at least being aware of the doctoring. But the league can’t prove it. The evidence is strong, but it is circumstantial and indirect. You know Goodell would love to end this drawn-out embarrassment by erasing any ambiguity. But as long as Tom Brady maintains his innocence, there’s a large segment of football fans that will believe him. So it’s no surprise that one report claims the NFL offered Brady a plea deal in exchange for fessing up.
Pro Football Talk, which last week was the first to report that the NFL and NFLPA engaged in settlement talks (a fact since confirmed by Brady), now reports that the NFL was ready to cut Brady’s four-game suspension to just one or two games.
Per a source with knowledge of the situation, the NFL was willing to drop the suspension by “at least 50 percent” if Brady: (1) admitted to having knowledge of whatever John Jastremski and Jim McNally were doing to the footballs; (2) admitted to failing to cooperate with the Ted Wells investigation; and (3) apologized.
It’s believed that Brady’s suspension would have been dropped at least to two games, with the possibility of dropping it to one if he were sufficiently persuasive and profuse in his acceptance of guilt.
The appeal for the NFL is easy to see. With a settlement, the NFL wouldn’t have had to release yesterday’s underwhelming decision, which supported a four-game suspension by reiterating some iffy ball pressure reading and couching Tom Brady’s destruction of his cell phone as some sort of damning proof. (It’s worth noting that the only piece of news throughout this six-month scandal that never leaked was the fact that Brady’s phone was wiped. Why didn’t that get out? It’s not crazy to wonder if the NFL wasn’t using it as leverage, holding it over Brady’s head in the hopes of getting him to agree to a deal.)
While the cell phone stuff looks bad—it sure as hell looks like destruction of evidence—it wouldn’t hold up in any non-kangaroo court, and nothing in Brady’s contract nor the CBA requires him to turn over his personal communications to his bosses. The NFL’s only possible smoking gun is a confession.
For Brady, it’s a trickier decision. A one- or two-game suspension is no big thing for a team as good as the Patriots. Four games without a star QB can mean a big difference in playoff seeding, or perhaps, in making the postseason at all. NFL.com’s Judy Battista reported that Brady may have considered a deal, but only if his admission of guilt was kept private.
Going public was the biggest hang-up. Maybe Brady’s actually innocent (nah). But more likely, he’s aware that his image will serve him long-term more than the Patriots’ 2015 record will. He’s a squeaky-clean golden boy with a lifetime of marketability ahead of him. Why risk any of that by admitting to cheating? Even if most NFL fans believe Brady demanded illegally deflated balls, his semi-plausible deniability will go a long way in what is essentially a PR battle. So it wasn’t a shock that Brady apparently declined to cover the NFL’s investigatory holes for it, and came out today with his strongest proclamation of innocence yet.
Now, for what it’s worth, Brady says the NFL did not make a formal counter-offer to the NFLPA’s settlement proposal, and a union spokesman says the two sides were never close on a deal. With Brady’s insistence on his innocence, it’s a moot point anyway. But remember this come Week 5, if the Brady-less Patriots take the field in Dallas facing the possibility of 2-2 or 1-3. Will Patriots fans’ unconditional support of Tom Brady hold up when he could have made this all go away by admitting to something most everyone assumes he did anyway?