Perhaps we’ve reached the point where it is officially permissible to feel a quiver of pity for Roger Goodell.
Goodell, the N.F.L. commissioner, came off a season in which he could not figure out precisely whom to suspend and for how long for varieties of grotesque domestic violence. His sport still tends to result in crushing head injuries. And he’s still wrestling with what to do about performance-enhancing drugs, for decades the rock candy of his brutal sport.
Now Goodell has come into possession of a damning report detailing the New England Patriots’ apparent deflation of footballs. The commissioner must decide whether to suspend Tom Brady, the N.F.L.’s reigning Super Bowl most valuable player and longtime boy wonder.
The evidence fell a couple of feet short of definitive. Investigators, however, unearthed a clubhouse fellow who went by the wonderfully suggestive nickname “the deflator.” Mr. Deflator worked closely before games with another clubhouse attendant. When word of the scandal broke, that attendant spent a lot of time talking and texting with Brady.
Brady refused to turn over his cellphone or texts from that time, although his resistance did not buy him precisely the separation he might have hoped for.
Now Goodell faces complexities. Should the commissioner suspend Brady for a game or three, he risks enraging his longtime patron Robert K. Kraft, the Patriots’ owner. Kraft reacted to the report by releasing a 460-word temper tantrum: “To say we are disappointed … no hard evidence … I was offended … gross understatement … circumstantial evidence … incomprehensible.”
As if Goodell needs this headache?
I placed a phone call to Fay Vincent, the former commissioner of Major League Baseball and the man who during his tenure suspended George Steinbrenner, the Mount Vesuvius of owners.
What would Vincent do? He let loose a groan of sympathy.
“It’s a very difficult and awkward situation,” Vincent said. “If you give the nod to the owner, you are in a position where your own standing and credibility is hurt, and you’re rolling over for the people who are paying you.”
Goodell makes tens of millions of dollars working for the millionaires and billionaires who make up his ownership. This has led unkind souls to term him a lap dog with a diamond-crusted collar. He could overturn that narrative and whack the Patriots. The owners could also send him scampering back to the pound.
The league report, submitted by a High Establishment law firm, is written in language that suggests a cross between the Senate Select Committee on Watergate and a brief submitted by the Los Alamos National Laboratory. (The science was contracted out, in part, to Dr. Daniel R. Marlow, a former chairman of Princeton’s physics department.) There are excursions into thermodynamics, non-logo gauges, and psig, not to mention the Ideal Gas Law.
“Specifically, the standard deviation for the Patriots measurements from the average Patriots measurement was 0.41 psi and 0.40 psi.” Well, of course.
Kraft, in his statement of apoplexy, referred to the findings of his own scientists. He came close to suggesting that the N.F.L. wanted to toss over Copernicus. “I don’t know how the science of atmospheric conditions can be refuted,” he groused.
Perhaps we worry too much. Goodell is an N.F.L. lifer. He has the fleshy good looks and practiced sincerity of a league survivor. His moves have been deft. He did a quick management lateral and delegated the question of punishment to a subordinate.
Here, you handle it.
“One possibility is to sit down and work out something with the team,” Vincent said. “It’s not easy, because the central allegation is that the Patriots are cheating. It’s very hard to make a deal about cheating.”
In the end, club rules will probably save everyone. Owning an N.F.L. franchise is not unlike obtaining a wax key to the federal mint. Once you enter its doors, it is very difficult to depart without armloads of money. Kraft sits atop a monopoly franchise worth $2.6 billion. Every time he looks up, his league signs a new television or sponsorship deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
He gets to appear on national television shows with the admiring likes of Charlie Rose and get referred to as “the Master Kraftsman.” People hang on his words and tend to his needs. Does he really want to risk overturning that armored truck?
Kraft himself signaled his understanding of that endgame. After expending hundreds of angry words, he noted that he is one of 32 terrifically rich owners and everyone loves a fatted calf.
“Extending this debate would prove futile,” he said. “We will accept the findings of the report and take the appropriate actions based on those findings as well as any discipline leveled by the league.”
Is a little deflated-football scandal going to come between a commissioner, a leading owner and many billions of dollars? We didn’t think so.
An earlier version of this article erroneously stated the circumstances under which Pete Rose was suspended from Major League Baseball. Rose’s suspension occurred during the tenure of Commissioner Bart Giamatti, not that of Fay Vincent, Giamatti’s successor.