HOUSTON — Here in Flood City, where I’ve long lived, worked and/or navigated, most of us are ambivalent about our rooting interest in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
On the one hand, we’re not fond of the New England Patriots and their gray-hooded boss, Bill Belichick. “Belicheat,” as he’s called by Hall of Fame coach Don Shula, is notoriously grumpy, shady and deceitful, not easy to like.
He was caught illegally spying on opponents, giving rise to the Spygate scandal. That’s one reason why Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin referred to the Patriots as “assholes” when he spoke to his team after their divisional playoff game and was live-streamed on Facebook by All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown.
Also tainting the Patriot brand: Deflategate, when the team was exposed by the Indianapolis Colts for letting air out of footballs to make them less likely to be fumbled.
Public Policy Polling reported that 53% of football fans are pulling for the Atlanta Falcons, compared to 27% rooting for the Patriots. PPP cited the Patriots as “the most hated team in the NFL.”
But as much as I decry Belichick, I’m more annoyed by Roger Goodell, commissioner of the National Football League. He suspended Tom Brady, one of America’s most popular athletes, for destroying his cell phone rather than let Goodell and his detectives peek at his text messages.
In this post-Snowden era there’s resentment about intrusion on people’s cyberspace privacy. Polls indicate Americans side with Brady over Goodell.
Brady is a rich version of Everyman, representing the best in us. The superstar quarterback is unselfish. To allow more payroll for Patriot teammates, he’s willing to work for half the compensation of the local QB1, the scatter-armed, scatter-brained Brock Osweiler.
If Brady was involved in deflating the footballs, it was another example of self-sacrifice. Everyone who’s ever thrown a football knows that a fully inflated one spirals better than one that’s softer. As time has gone on and Brady’s performance has proved consistenly brilliant regardless of the PSI of footballs he throws, Deflategate seems overblown and Goodell’s punishment overdone.
Not only did the Patriots lose their quarterback for four games, they were deprived of a first-round draft pick (also a fourth-rounder) and were assessed the largest fine in league history: $1 million.
But while Goodell was casting stones, he was also taking some hits. The movie Concussion and various news reports depicted him denying massive evidence that players in his league were getting their brains beat in, their lives shortened by decades.
Goodell seemed only to care that such news might reduce the sport’s appeal to television networks. So he tried to squelch concussion research, and he compared the risk of playing football to sitting on a couch. He made such a fool of himself that some owners – not just his ex-friend Bob Kraft of the Patriots – began conspiring against him.
His salary was slashed by $2 million, which would be enough to plunge 98 percent of Americans into bankruptcy.
Of course, Goodell easily withstood the cut to $31.7 mil. This was a slap on the wrist. But it was also a hard slap in the face.
He had maintained good standing with his employers, the NFL owners, because under his stewardship their league is awash in revenues for which he receives excessive credit. Football is the only business in America where you can be as incompetent as the Cleveland Browns and still make tens of millions of dollars in profits.
Because Goodell did get the final verdict against Brady, Deflategate goes into the books as a win for the commish. The courts did not rule that Brady did anything wrong but only that Goodell under the collective bargaining agreement had the sole right to make that determination.
Goodell’s victory tour avoided Patriot Nation. Since his Deflategate rulings in 2015, he has not appeared at Gillette Stadium. He flew to Atlanta for the past two rounds of the playoffs.
But there’s no dodging the Patriots on Sunday at NRG Stadium. If they beat the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl 51, as they’re favored to do, Goodell will be custom-bound to present the Lombardi Trophy to Kraft. If Brady is Most Valuable Player, Goodell promises to hand the trophy to him.
“Tom Brady is one of the all-time greats,” Goodell said. “It would be an honor.”
Still, I can’t help thinking he will be as uncomfortable as a surrendering general kneeling and offering his sword to the conqueror.
Cleveland’s Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas captured the prevailing sentiment with this tweet: “As much as I’d like to see my buddy Alex Mack (ex-Brown who’s now the Falcons center) win a Super Bowl, I would sure love to see NFL commish hand SB trophy to Brady!”
Those who expect Brady to gloat will be disappointed. He will be gracious. His pristine public image is valuable to him, especially if he’s contemplating a future career in politics, as rumor has it, perhaps related to his long-time friendship with the new prez.
Though Brady has kept mum on Deflategate, insisting there’s “no animosity,” his father has not pulled back. Before his son banned him from speaking to reporters at the Super Bowl, Tom Brady Sr. pointed out “reprehensible” lies from Goodell that surfaced in Deflategate testimony. Just as alternative facts emerged from Goodell during concussion litigation and investigations of the Ray Rice woman-punchout scandal.
Goodell, the Face of the NFL, is continually trapped in his webs of lies. So as often as the evil emperor Belichick causes me to groan (Spygate was “a misunderstanding”), I agree with Joe Thomas. It won’t be nearly as dramatic a scene as we want it to be, but I would relish the sight of Goodell congratulating Brady.