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One week ago, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft pledged to "accept the findings" of the Wells report. The Patriots knew "that there is no real recourse available," Kraft said, and moreover they "understand and greatly respect the responsibility of being one of 32 in this league."
So much for respect, responsibility and a sense of place.
Wednesday, Kraft authorized the publication of a nearly 20,000-word rebuttal to the Wells report. The document makes some important points, most notably illuminating inconsistent assumptions in measuring the inflation of footballs. It strains credulity in some instances, specifically its claim that an employee referring to himself as "The Deflator" was referencing weight loss rather than air pressure. And it's downright juvenile in others, redacting text messages "out of respect" to women and claiming that the NFL should have had better protocols for testing air pressure in footballs if it was such an important issue.
If we can, though, let's take a step back from the gory details and see this episode for what it is: one of the most direct challenges to league authority in recent NFL history.
The document's intention "is to provide additional context for balance and consideration," according to its preamble. What it is really saying, of course, is that by funding the Wells report, the NFL endorsed a poor investigation and produced a faulty ruling that merited a public rebuke, debate and who knows what else.
That might well be true. Evidence in the Wells report is sketchy enough, after all, that its author felt compelled to defend it publicly this week. But look back at Kraft's sentiment from last week. It accurately depicts what NFL owners accept when they purchase a franchise.
Article VIII of the NFL constitution gives the commissioner, and by proxy the league office, "full, complete and final jurisdiction" to resolve disputes. It also gives the commissioner "complete authority" to issue discipline for rules violations. Finally, Article IX expressly prohibits public criticism of the league by member clubs, stating: "All complaints or criticism ... shall be made to the Commissioner only and shall not be publicized directly or indirectly."
Make no mistake: By systematically challenging and attempting to neutralize the Wells report, Robert Kraft and the Patriots have challenged the essential power structure of the NFL. This is as close to an internal civil war as we've seen since former Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis sued the league so that he could move his franchise to Los Angeles -- and then again when he felt undermined there.
Since that point, NFL owners have worked in associative harmony for decades. Their all-for-one conceit has coincided with the league's rise to the most powerful collection of sports teams in the country. The Patriots, in their anger and zeal to defend themselves, broke from that structure in the most public way available short of a lawsuit. (That's another rumored possibility, and one that is also prohibited by the NFL constitution.)
In this case, however, the agitator is not a longtime anti-establishment activist, as Davis was viewed during most of his tenure. Instead, it was one of the league's most powerful establishment owners, the one most responsible for the ascension of commissioner Roger Goodell and the chairman of arguably the league's most important committee (broadcast).
The NFL fully expected the Patriots to swallow their medicine, as painful as it might be, and move on for the good of the collective. As of last week, Kraft planned to do just that. By reversing course, he has revealed a new NFL.
For the moment, at least, it can't be considered a collection of simmering competitors. The Patriots can't be considered "one of 32." Not today. This is the first step in a rebellion. Will it be quashed? Will Kraft back down now that he has said his (long) piece? As in the case of any unprecedented act, no one can possibly know. Stay tuned.