Kangaroo Court

How an Inept League Can Punish the Patriots

After a 243-page NFL report, Tom Brady is due for punishment and the Patriots might lose a few picks. There’s still no report on how the team and the league harbored a convicted murderer just before they deflated some footballs.

Lucy Nicholson / Reuters

“The Mysterious Case of the Deflated Football” is the heavy-hitting investigation the NFL wants to have in the daylight. It is a Potemkin narrative, an opportunity for the most powerful sporting league in human history to look reflective and accountable, even as they scramble to toss countless far more serious crimes down the memory hole.

And now they get to punish a team for it—or at least two lowly, sadsack ballboys who now will almost certainly not even be that anymore.

The full investigative report into those New England game balls, mysteriously deflated below the required gauge pressure and used at the AFC Championship Game this past January, is out, and even for the NFL in the age of Roger Goodell, is a remarkable exercise in burnishing “The Shield.” On the one hand, the report itself actually seems pretty good, and presents a strong circumstantial case as to what happened in Foxborough last January. On the other hand: This official report, four months in the making, undertaken by a white-shoe law firm with the assistance of a private forensics firm and a team of scientists, is the conclusion into an investigation into whether and how 12 footballs were deflated below 12½ pounds per square inch.

It happened while a tight end from the same team was found guilty of driving a man to a parking lot and killing him in cold blood.

Deflategate is the equivalent of Roger Goodell spending a few million dollars to investigate a mosquito bite, while a plague of locusts destroys everything and anything around him.

And if you accept that New England really doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt, the report is a delight to read. The investigation, as headed by heavy hitter attorney Ted Wells, is rendered in surprisingly readable prose, and nicely conveys a cool skepticism toward all of the official New England claims; like a noir detective who knows he’s being lied to, but isn’t angry, Wells weaves all of the relevant text messages, phone contacts, video footage, and eyewitness interviews into a muscular circumstantial case.

The unlikely stars of the report are two Patriots gofers, equipment assistant John “JJ” Jastremski and locker room attendant Jim “Bird” McNally, who seem to have stepped fully formed from the pages of Boston crime fiction. In their wise-assed text messages, sneaky low-rent scheming, and sweaty, fumbling obfuscations, they read like discarded “friends of Eddie Coyle.”

It’s hard not to feel bad for them, as the picture comes into focus: The two were clearly working every home game to deflate the footballs to Brady’s specifications, with the payoff being the occasional autograph, signed jersey, or new sneakers. McNally could present no explanation as to why he took all of the game balls for the AFC game into a distant bathroom, with enough time to deflate each using the “needle” he and Jastremski frequently alluded to in their texts.

Of course, Jastremski and McNally were thrown under the bus. Each was mentioned hundreds of times in the report, with Brady denying knowing McNally at all (a claim the report discounts), and with the star QB exchanging mysterious, lengthy phone calls with Jastremski, before cutting all ties. Brady, in particular, comes across as mendacious—a stone-waller who shows up for his interview with all the requisite agents, lawyers, and flunkies, all of the luxuries denied of the guys who got him the balls he wanted. He’s the high school athlete who’s pals with the unpopular guys so long as they get him pot, or do his homework—but who hightails it back to practice the moment the wind shifts, the consequences diffused behind him.

The investigation was rigorous and remarkably comprehensive. New England seems entirely guilty as originally charged. But to what end? Released as it was months after the Patriots’ ultimate Super Bowl victory, and a week after the draft where their picks could have been forfeited, what’s the point?

A certain level of rule-bending is accepted by all teams. Brady, perhaps for pontificating a bit from the podium, overdid it, and got his fingers caught. Deflated balls—or piped-in crowd noise, or in-game texting—are the daily misdemeanors which go on, and will continue to go on, so long as human beings are involved in football.

This is not to say this cheapjack fudging is in any way virtuous. But the high dudgeon now emanating from the sports media—the steady shriek to raze Foxboro into salted earth—is a bit much. As the report makes clear, although Brady seems clearly busted, Wells could not get the goods directly tying him to the deflation. Belichick is entirely removed from the situation.

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So what will be the punishment? Probably a short suspension for Brady, as much for his refusal to cooperate as for his likely guilt. Probably a fine. Maybe a docked draft pick for 2016, as the Falcons received last season. The usual suspects are screaming like banshees, and will elevate their pitch when the punishment is inevitably disappointing to them—accusations, fair though they may be, that Patriots owner Robert Kraft, the Rasputin of the NFL, will talk Goodell down.

But the stakes are entirely small potatoes, rendered laughable when compared to the countless acts of depravity and violence the NFL can barely bring itself to recognize, much less transparently investigate.

This is the same sports world which could find space to explain away Adrian Peterson’s traditionalist parenting, or “provocative” battered women, or how a rapist was just “immature” at the time of his crimes.

This is the same sports league that attempted to destroy the career of Dr. Bennet Omalu rather than investigate his linkage of brain trauma to pro football.

The Wells Report, at 243 pages, is over twice the size of the Mueller Report, investigating the NFL’s flagrant attempts to cover up their knowledge of former Ravens RB Ray Rice’s beating of his wife-to-be.

I have seen no comparable investigation undertaken as to how the NFL and the Patriots drafted a murderer as a tight end. Indeed, the very idea of examining such a thing would be laughable. That, of course, you can just chalk up to bad luck.

The murderer gets no novel-sized report, not even after the book’s been thrown at him. Not in the NFL, where justice is arbitrary.

Deflated footballs, indeed.