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Keith Strudler: Deflategate Redux

I work in academia. So I am painfully familiar with what one might consider a longstanding disagreement. In a work environment where people might stay in a job for 40 years, it’s not unusual for arguments to linger for a decade or two.

By those standards, the fight between NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady, popularly known as “Deflategate,” is virtually newborn. It was just over 15 months ago that Tom Brady allegedly deflated footballs in their playoff blowout win against the Indianapolis Colts, which led to a now well documented four game suspension that was supposed to be levied last year at the beginning of the season. But before that could happen, a US District Court ruled against the league and thus threw out the suspension. Case closed.

Only it’s not. Because now, eight months after that hearing, a US Court of Appeals overruled the District Court and reinstated the four game suspension, which is now scheduled for the beginning of the upcoming NFL season. The judge didn’t speak much to the game nor the football itself, but rather Goodell’s authority to levy such a penalty. Which apparently he has, according to the court’s analysis of the league’s charter and Goodell’s contract. So, this decision has relatively little to do with the PSI of footballs and a whole lot to do with the distribution of power in the NFL. Strangely, for this one shining moment, these things are one and the same.

It’s seemingly impossible to overestimate the importance of this one arguably small incident in a game won 45-7. In our 2015 year end Marist Poll on the biggest stories in sports, Deflategate was the top choice, picked ahead of the FIFA scandal and the protest by the University of Missouri football team. That seemed crazy at the time. What’s stranger is that this story, or non-story depending on your perspective, might actually repeat in 2016, something the Patriots couldn’t do this past year after winning the Super Bowl prior.

Brady will certainly appeal, although it sounds unlikely this decision will be overturned. There is a chance it will be kicked ever further down the road, moving the suspension to 2017. Or maybe Brady could simply hand it down to his kids, in case they ever decide to play football. Maybe this could turn into a generational feud, like sports version of the Hatfields and the McCoys. All of this over an allegedly deflated football in a blowout playoff game.

To be clear, I don’t want to exonerate Tom Brady, especially given the shady details of his lost cell phone immediately after the incident. It seems entirely plausible Tom Brady was intimately involved with deflating footballs to get an unfair advantage. One can argue it’s no different than taking PED’s or illegally filming another team – which of course the Patriots have been accused of doing in the past. I also won’t suggest that Roger Goodell shouldn’t punish players that break rules. If nothing else, this is a league of law and order, and what would a commissioner be without maintaining the later. From an owners perspective – and remember, they are Roger Goodell’s boss – they probably like Goodell’s persistence, even if they don’t always admit it. Goodell gets paid like $50 million a year for a lot of things, like negotiating billion dollar TV deals with multiple networks. He also gets paid to protect the owners’ stake so they don’t have to. He is, by all accounts, the front line of defense.

And therein lies the answer for those who don’t like this verdict – likely including most all players, Patriots or not. The balance of power in the NFL is about as even as a picture hung in a hurricane. The players increasingly assume undue risk – lifetime injury and premature death, for example – and the owners take the majority of revenue. Players don’t have guaranteed contracts, and teams can largely treat athletes like human commodities – which, I suppose they are. And, as the courts have ruled, the NFL commissioner – the representative of the owners – can essentially do whatever he wants. Like suspend the league’s marquis quarterback for the better part of a decade for as long as he wants. Whether it’s fair or not, which, to be honest, is almost secondary.

So if the players don’t like the Brady ruling, and they shouldn’t, the courts probably aren’t the answer. The answer is next time collective bargaining happens, players need to argue for more than salary and contracts. They need to argue for power. That’s sometimes a hard thing to realize when your current number one goal is earning as much as possible in a career that lasts three years on average.

Now, whether they can actually get it is another issue. 

Keith Strudler is the director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication and an associate professor of communication. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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