500 days later, Deflategate is still full of mystery

Yates: Brady facing long odds with appeal (1:42)

Field Yates shares his thoughts on Tom Brady's decision to appeal his four-game suspension and what Brady's chances are of getting the suspension overturned or reduced. (1:42)

Deflategate is 500 days old and we still don't know if it happened.

Real doubt exists at the most basic and existential level imaginable. Did anything unnatural happen to footballs used in the 2014 AFC Championship Game? The NFL, backed by a multimillion dollar third-party report, believes it did. Science, reason and innate skepticism diminish the certainty of its answer.

Yes, 500 days have passed -- enough time for Earth to travel 800 million miles through space -- since the NFL began investigating why some of those footballs tested below permissible inflation limits during a halftime check. That was on Jan. 19, 2015. And here we are, in the first week of June 2016, and there is no end in sight. The New England Patriots have paid a $1 million fine and forfeited their first-round draft choice, but quarterback Tom Brady continues to fight a four-game suspension that could challenge the duration of the original (and some would say only) "gate" in American history.

Watergate consumed 783 days between the burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters and the resignation of the president of the United States. (Richard Nixon relented when his role in the scandal was clear to the world. Tom Brady? He hasn't, because it isn't.)

Yet for all of that time, not to mention an estimated $22.5 million and rising in legal fees, incredible gaps remain in any objective collection of unassailable facts. Brady stands accused of being "generally aware" of a scheme to deflate footballs on his behalf, based chiefly on partially documented communication with an equipment assistant and the curious journey of a locker room attendant who carried a bag of game balls into a bathroom prior to kickoff at Gillette Stadium.

But there is no direct evidence that the locker room attendant, Jim McNally, removed air from the balls or that Brady instructed him to do it. All we know is that he once referred to himself as "The Deflator" in a text message to equipment assistant John Jastremski.

For all we know, and plenty of scientists have attested, the footballs deflated because, well, nature. According to the Ideal Gas Law, atmospheric and temperature changes can impact the pressure inside a football (pounds per square inch, or psi).

It's hard to say, of course, because up until that moment, the NFL never recorded psi measurements. It has refused to release results of 2015 spot checks. Deflategate might not be a unique event. It could very well happen every week in the NFL.

Regardless, the impact of inflation itself is debatable. Brady has said he prefers the minimum required measurement of 12.5 psi. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, on the other hand, has said he likes them inflated to maximum levels of 13.5 psi.

We can't be certain if, and the NFL never explained how, footballs were deflated before the 2014 AFC Championship Game. Deflategate might exist only as an investigation and not an actual event. It could be a fire without a spark, at least an organic one.

There is so much we don't know and might never know, but the legacy of Deflategate will be what we've already learned. Namely: The NFL authority structure supports and, in some cases, encourages the imposition of discipline independent of the availability of indisputable facts.

If it wasn't clear during the muddled Bountygate investigation, it's obvious now. The NFL's collective bargaining agreement with its players provides enormous latitude to accuse, convict and penalize with evidence far short of a criminal legal standard. The standard is simply to have "more likely than not" engaged in an activity.

Unchecked, this authority has enormous implications. It's not difficult to pursue an agenda based on 51 percent certainty. You could quite easily (if expensively) assemble enough evidence to, say, take down the face of the most successful and enviable franchise in the game. Deflategate has shown us how.

ESPN's investigative reporting has explained that the NFL -- especially commissioner Roger Goodell -- was supported by owners who wanted to see the Patriots and Brady get their comeuppance. These owners are either too arrogant or too oblivious to realize they could be next. (Ask the Kansas City Chiefs, who absorbed an unprecedented tampering penalty this spring.)

Deflategate also has exposed fractures among owners and presented a public image of warring factions on multiple fronts.

Think about the extent to which Patriots owner Robert Kraft has undermined the league's findings and actions. Not only have the Patriots created and regularly updated what they bill as a myth-busting website of the NFL's Deflategate errors, but they've also filed an amicus brief in court on Brady's behalf. The Patriots are a business partner in one sense and whistleblower in the other, intent on exposing the missteps of their corporate board.

This should all be wearying to the league and damaging to its business, but instead it has been consumed nationally as a political reality show. The NFL has never been more popular nor generated greater fan interest.

Deflategate has been a rallying cry for Patriots fans and a source of amusement for the rest of the league's customers. It has shown us that conflict is good, at least for the NFL. The league's stumbles have been entertaining, not damaging, and fortunately its capacity for more appears limitless.