Tom Brady: Superstar or cheat... or both?

Even the White House was moved to comment on the furore engulfing the quarterback

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How are the mighty fallen. Earlier this week Tom Brady, god of the National Football League, was handed a heavy suspension for his apparent involvement in a scheme to deflate footballs.

Even the White House solemnly weighed in on this 21st century morality tale, with President Obama’s spokesman warning of how a generation of American kids might be ruined by the disgrace of a role model. Forget the Middle East, the Iranian nuclear talks, Hillary and Jeb and the presidential race. For two weeks, “Deflategate” has been the biggest show in town.

First though, as they say, the facts ma’am. The offence occurred during January’s post season game between Brady’s New England Patriots and the visiting Indianapolis Colts, which the Patriots won, securing themselves a berth in the 2015 Super Bowl, in which they would also triumph.

But even before half-time the Colts were complaining that the balls had been doctored. As the team’s quarterback, Brady favoured softer balls, which he could grip better and thus throw more accurately. The NFL requires that balls must have a minimum pressure of 12.5 pounds per square inch; 11 of those used in the Colts game were at least a pound below that.

The League duly commissioned a report which found Brady and the Patriots guilty as charged – or at least, sort of guilty. He was banned for the first four games of next season, while the team was fined $1m and deprived of two draft picks, in 2016 and 2017. But have the mighty really fallen?

Tom Brady is the American dream made flesh – the handsome California kid who excelled at every sport he played, and ended up married to the Brazilian super-model Gisele Bündchen, who has borne him two sons. The couple own a $20m home in Los Angeles and a $14m condominum in New York, with a new mansion near Boston on the way.

A-listers don’t come more alpha. She is not just reputedly the world’s highest earning model but was recently listed by Forbes magazine as the 89th most powerful woman in the world. He’s the biggest star of the country’s most popular sport – and given the decline of Tiger Woods and the current absence of a true baseball hero – perhaps the biggest star in American sport tout court, winner of a record four Super Bowls and in the view of many the greatest quarterback in the history of the NFL. At the end of the day, “Deflategate” is unlikely to be more than a footnote on his CV. Indeed, since Brady’s sentencing, sales of his shirts and other kit have soared.

So what to make of it all? Reactions fall into two camps. For some, the NFL’s “Golden Boy” is an arrogant cheat, who believed himself bigger than the sport whose integrity he has betrayed, along with the trust of those impressionable kids who so exercise the White House. In an ideal world, the Patriots would have been stripped of the Super Bowl as well.

Outside New England, the dislike of the team reminds one of the feelings beyond London SW6 about Chelsea in the Premier League – unloved champions who will do anything to win. For Jose Mourinho read Bill Belichick, the coach who has been caught cheating in the past, but whose partnership with Brady has made the Patriots the dominant NFL franchise of the 21st century.

The other view is that the League had used a piffling offence to cover its you-know-what. The violation made no difference to an outcome of a game the Patriots won 45-7. After the softer balls were discovered and replaced by properly inflated ones, Brady was even more dominant, throwing four unanswered touch-downs in the second half.

And, the apologists maintain, what’s the big deal anyway; don’t competitors in every sport seek to gain that extra competitive edge? Scuffed baseballs, squishy basketballs, deflated footballs: what’s the difference? Indeed, an ESPN poll found fans roughly split on the correctness of the verdict but overwhelmingly believing that other NFL teams did the same thing.

And then there’s the less-than-damning language of the 243-page report the NFL commissioned into the affair. It was, the document concluded, “more probable than not” that the player was “at least generally aware” of the alleged deflation plans. Enough for the NFL perhaps, but not exactly the level of proof required in a court of law. Unsuprisingly, Brady is appealing. The smart money is now on a reduction, even the overturning, of the suspension, especially given the topdrawer defence lawyers Brady has lined up.

Nor can the affair be separated from the broader fortunes of the NFL in general and its commissioner Roger Goodell in particular. This has been the League’s annus horribilis: from the lawsuit brought by former players that was settled by the NFL for some $800m (a tacit admission of how it had covered up the brain damage incurred by on-field concussions,) to the proliferating instances of domestic violence by current players, not to mention last month’s conviction for first-degree murder of the former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.

The result has been an avalanche of criticism for the hapless Goodell, widely perceived as out of touch and, even more pertinently, as the creature of Patriots owner Robert Kraft. So what better way to show one’s independence and impartiality than to punish so severely his league’s most famous player, and the brightest jewel in Kraft’s crown?

And make no mistake, a four-game ban is severe: double the one initially handed down to Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens for his beating of his fiancée. Only in the peculiar moral universe of the NFL could tampering with footballs be regarded as twice as serious as violent physical assault. Kraft moreover is reportedly furious at this perceived betrayal, especially after his public defence of Goodell during the Rice affair, when several other owners were arguing for the commissioner’s replacement. Goodell may yet be forced to fall upon his sword. Not so, one suspects, the tarnished golden boy Tom Brady.

Oh, and one other small point. Given a modicum of common sense, the entire fuss might have been avoided. Under current NFL rules the home team is responsible for providing the game balls. Why on earth don’t officials bring correctly inflated balls with them and never let them out of their sight? Just wondering.