Today or tomorrow, U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman will rule in the legal case between quarterback Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and the National Football League which wants to suspend him for four games for participating in or having knowledge of the illicit deflation of some of the footballs the Patriots played offense with during the AFC Championship game last spring or at least of not having cooperated fully in the NFL’s investigation of the incident. When Judge Berman rules, he will effectively write the ending of a saga that has lasted throughout the NFL’s offseason. There may be appeals after this, but because the new season starts in a week, they probably won’t last long or be hotly followed. Judge Berman can rule in any of three ways. He could uphold the NFL’s suspension of Brady, he could eliminate the suspension, or he could reduce the penalty to a shorter suspension or even just a fine.
In days past, this second paragraph would have been a bulleted list of the outcomes with a short explanation of what to say about each possible outcome. This is still a practical way to think about preparing for the Deflategate ruling, but not the most meaningful one. That’s because, with the ruling (finally) approaching, it seems clear that regardless of the legal outcome, the outcome in popular opinion has already settled inextricably into a simple mold: both sides have won.
Tom Brady and the Patriots have won the battle of public opinion. When the Deflategate controversy first broke, most people believed that Brady or the Patriots had doctored the footballs. This was partially because the NFL and some media outlets were telling the public that this was true but also just because it seemed like something the Patriots and Brady would do. Everyone knows the Patriots are shady! Believing that they would be shady in this particular way was a small leap for most non-Patriot fan football fans. Throughout the spring and summer, the Patriots waged a fairly impressive war for public opinion, starting with Bellichick’s mildly bizarre foray into the science of gasses and continuing as Brady appealed the NFL’s decision and then took the league to court. In court, Judge Berman has been publicly quite critical of the NFL’s handling of the situation. By now, most people either believe that the balls were never deflated, or that if they were, Brady had nothing to do with it, or at least that the NFL’s investigation and ruling on the matter has been so out of proportion to the crime as to render the crime itself insignificant. People on the other side of the issue are either biased fans of rival teams or moralizing, holier-than-thou teetotalers.
The NFL has lost in the court of public opinion, so how can they also have won? Back in February, I asked whether the entire Deflategate controversy was a clever piece of misdirection on the NFL’s part to keep the football world talking about balls instead of brain injuries. Perhaps Deflategate was something the NFL was using to keep football fans and media from writing about the far more disturbing and threatening twin issues of brain injury and domestic violence that should have dominated the football conversation in the fallow period leading up to the Super Bowl. I was wrong — we were going to keep talking about Deflategate all through the offseason, but maybe I was also right. The NFL is in a tight spot when it comes to brain injuries. After years (maybe decades) of denying their impact on players, the league now needs to find a way to address the causes and consequences of brain injury and concussion before it robs them of their workforce and consumer base in any meaningful way. The NFL has not yet come up with any realistic solutions to address the problem (maybe they should read my proposed solution!) The football world would have been focused completely on brain injuries, especially when as amazing a focal point as the retirement of 24 year-old linebacker Chris Borland appeared, but instead it talked about deflated balls and morality all summer. Regardless of how bad the NFL looks on those topics, they are not a threat to football in the way that brain injuries are. By keeping the Deflategate “scandal” going all summer, the NFL has won another season to solve the concussion crisis. That’s a victory for them too.
Judge Berman’s ruling will be announced soon and what it is will seem like a referendum on who “won” the Deflategate scandal. If the suspension is upheld, it will seem like the NFL won. If it is eliminated, it will seem like Brady and the Patriots won. If Brady’s penalty is reduced but not eliminated, it may seem like the two sides fought to a draw. This will be an illusion. Regardless of the Judge’s ruling, both sides have already won.