Column: Ruling doesn’t mean Tom Brady is innocent

Tom Brady did not play in the Patriots' final preseason game after winning his appeal of a four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate.

Tom Brady did not play in the Patriots’ final preseason game after winning his appeal of a four-game suspension for his alleged role in Deflategate.

(Grant Halverson / Getty Images)

The only thing worse than deflated footballs is an inflated celebration over their apparent irrelevance. Yet such parties were being thrown throughout New England on Thursday when a federal judge lifted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for his role in Deflategate.

No pun intended, but get a grip.

Just because the NFL was dirty, doesn’t mean Tom Brady was clean.

Just because Commissioner Roger Goodell was judged guilty of handing down an unfair football punishment, doesn’t mean Tom Brady was innocent of that football crime.


The suspension wasn’t lifted because Brady didn’t do it. The suspension was lifted because the NFL’s penalty was ruled to have been “legally misplaced.” It had nothing to do with whether Brady illegally tricked up those footballs.

Read U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman’s 40-page report. He rips Goodell for dispensing “his own brand of industrial justice.” He scolds the commissioner for not giving Brady any warning of a possible penalty, for not allowing him to interview NFL General Counsel Jeff Pash, for not giving him equal access to the investigative files and witness notes.

Berman concludes that there was no league precedent or policy for punishing players for being “generally aware” of misconduct by others, meaning there was no specific rule against Brady knowing the Patriots equipment guys were deflating the footballs.

The judge levels the commissioner with such a brutal clothesline tackle, it is fair to wonder whether Goodell’s ability to govern has been forever hobbled. But he will most certainly remain commissioner of this lucrative business because the 32 owners love the money enough to tolerate the humiliation.


Just because Goodell was condemned doesn’t mean Brady was exonerated. Nowhere in the report does Berman comment on Brady’s innocence or guilt. That wasn’t his assignment. The final ruling will come from the court of public perception.

Just as certain as Brady taking the field next Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers are the facts that will follow him there.

At halftime of January’s AFC championship game between the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, some of the Patriots’ footballs were discovered to have been underinflated, which is against the rules and makes them easier to handle. The Patriots won the game, 45-7, en route to an eventual Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks and a Super Bowl MVP award for Brady.

In May, the NFL released the results of an investigation that determined it was “more probable than not” that Patriots equipment personnel deflated the footballs, and that Brady had known about it. Football people universally acknowledged that quarterbacks are always very aware of the air pressure in their footballs, and it would be outrageous to believe Brady wasn’t involved.


Shortly after the report was released, the NFL suspended Brady for four games, a ruling the league later upheld when it revealed that Brady had impeded the investigation by destroying his cellphone that contained nearly 10,000 text messages, some of which could have been critical to the case.

While none of this timeline was cited in Berman’s ruling Thursday, it will forever be part of Brady’s history. No matter how badly the NFL handled this, Brady handled it equally as poorly, and 40 pages of legalese can not erase that.

For those who think Brady was a cheater, this ruling should do nothing to change their opinion. There are still deflated footballs. There is still destroyed evidence. There is still a stain.

Or is there? Can an athlete’s legacy be tainted by a cheating charge if that athlete is never found legally guilty or even punished for that cheating charge?


Hmmm. Ask Barry Bonds. In fact, ask all those potential baseball Hall of Famers who are being kept out of Cooperstown simply because of the perception of cheating. The act of deflating a football obviously can’t be compared to steroid use, but in many places, the lingering effects on Brady will be the same.

Not in New England, of course. On a day when the region’s cheating quarterback was allowed back in the lineup because of the bumbling NFL, there were 30 digital billboards around town blazing with one word, “Vindicated”

False advertising.


Twitter: @billplaschke