On some level, we all should have seen this coming. Tom Brady, one of the greatest sports winners of all time, facing off against Roger Goodell, a commissioner riding a long losing streak. This turned out to be a bigger mismatch than the New England Patriots against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game.
So Tom Brady wins because, you know, that's what Tom Brady does. He wins at life. He has got the dimpled cover boy looks, Gisele, and more fame and fortune than any young man could ask for.
And now he has Roger Goodell's head resting on his mantel right next to those four Super Bowl rings. I suppose one could point out that in vacating Brady's four-game suspension Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman never said the quarterback was not aware of the alleged deflation of footballs before the start of what would be a 45-7 victory over the Colts in January. In fact, in referencing Goodell's decision to uphold Brady's ban in July, Berman wrote the following on page 20 of his 40-page smackdown of the league:
"An arbitrator's factual findings are generally not open to judicial challenge, and we accept the facts as the arbitrator found them."
But in the NFL, and in Judge Berman's courtroom, a loss is a loss is a loss. In other words, this was a day for the losers to accept defeat with grace rather than focusing on the circumstantial evidence driving most neutral observers to the agenda-free conclusion that Brady played fast and loose with what he likely thought was an inconsequential equipment rule.
Goodell appealed Berman's decision anyway because he needs to "protect the integrity of the game." Truth is, by forever botching the disciplinary matters before him, the commissioner has severely damaged the integrity of his office, not to mention whatever is left of his legacy as a self-appointed Wild West sheriff determined to bring order.
It's pointless to call for Goodell to resign because: A) He's never voluntarily surrendering this gig and the obscene wages that come with it; and B) Too many owners are thrilled he went after Robert Kraft and Bill Belichick's Kremlin-like dynasty. But after Goodell blew this winnable Brady case -- and yes, it was winnable -- how can anyone take him seriously as a competent overlord of NFL justice?
Berman spelled it out in his decision. He never said Brady was not in cahoots with The Deflator or that the quarterback had perfectly innocent reasons for making his cellphone go poof in the night. Berman merely said he wiped out the four-game suspension because it was "premised upon several significant legal deficiencies," including Goodell's failure to allow Brady's lawyers to examine one of the chief figures in the Ted Wells investigation, NFL executive Jeff Pash, and his failure to allow them access to witness interview notes.
So the same commissioner who punished Brady for refusing to turn over potential evidence refused to turn over potential evidence to Brady. Brilliant. Berman also ripped Goodell over his unnecessary comparison of Brady to players caught using performance-enhancing drugs, writing that the commissioner's ruling "offers no scientific, empirical or historical evidence of any comparability between Brady's alleged offense and steroid use."
The judge made sure to mock Goodell's entire game plan. He cited the commissioner's failure to define which part of the suspension was for the alleged rules violation and which part was for lack of cooperation, and he called Goodell's attempt to punish Brady under a conduct-detrimental-to-the-game policy -- as opposed to a policy that establishes fines for first-time equipment violations -- "legally misplaced."
"Because there was no notice of a four-game suspension in the circumstances presented here," Berman wrote, "Commissioner Goodell may be said to have dispensed his own brand of industrial justice."
The judge effectively said Goodell's strategy and choices left Berman no choice but to wipe out the suspension. Had the commissioner not denied the Patriots quarterback access to Pash ("Brady was prejudiced," Berman said) and to investigative files and witness notes ("fundamentally unfair," Berman called it), maybe the judge would've had less trouble accepting the Wells probe as truly independent. Maybe he would've decided to overlook Goodell's other missteps. Maybe he would've decided to rule in favor of the league. Maybe.
We'll never know now. This much we do know: Ted Wells didn't help Goodell's cause. Though the investigator would call Brady's refusal to surrender relevant texts and emails "one of the most ill-advised [decisions] I have ever seen because it hurt how I viewed his credibility," Wells confirmed he never warned the quarterback that such refusal could and would lead to discipline.
In the end, Goodell would have found a way to lose this case, just like he found a way to lose the cases of Bountygate, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and Greg Hardy. The commissioner has been cut down by his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, along with three judges (Berman, David Doty, Barbara Jones) and an arbitrator/longtime NFL executive (Harold Henderson). If Goodell were looking for a small consolation prize Thursday, he would have to settle for the fact Berman at least didn't rebuke him for an "abuse of discretion" (as Jones did in the Ray Rice case).
Berman did rebuke Goodell for just about everything else and then delivered a hard spike in the end zone in the final paragraph of his decision. "Brady's four-game suspension is vacated," he wrote, "effective immediately."
One of the two best quarterbacks ever just won what amounts to his fifth championship. Kraft might be really kicking himself now over accepting his $1 million fine, and Belichick might be screaming bloody murder while asking how in the world the guy who was accused in the Wells report (Brady) beat the rap, while the guy who was cleared in the Wells report (Belichick) is still out two draft picks.
But Goodell is the one and only loser here. He chose the wrong forum for this case, as it turned out, when he gambled that Berman would go along with the program and reaffirm the process of collectively bargained arbitration. Goodell gambled that he would win this case even when it became clear he should offer Brady a two-game suspension for lack of cooperation, waiving any requirements for a direct admission of guilt.
Roger Goodell lost because, you know, that's what Roger Goodell does. He loses as easily as Tom Brady wins.