When Deflategate was initially "broken" by a confused D'Qwell Jackson after an interception in the AFC Championship Game, the media and fans alike laughed it off as a silly thing to make fun of the Patriots for. "Oh, the Cheatriots are at it again" we scoffed, thinking that it would be a meme that blew over after media week heading into the Patriots' impending Super Bowl matchup with the Seattle Seahawks. Jackson and the Colts had no idea of the media firestorm that was about to occur, and the rest of the football world remained blissfully unaware of what the months held for them until August.
Fast forward to the beginning of August, and this has become a story that has absolutely national headlines, not just in the football world, but also on networks such as CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Every single detail of Deflategate that has come out has been scrutinized, and every detail has been twisted to fit a narrative.
The real issue is that the news that is being broken is being spun by whoever is breaking it. Common opinion of "casual" and "die hard" fans alike has shifted back in forth like a metronome as the Patriots have released their statements and the NFL has released its rebuttals. Robert Kraft's "I'm not mad, I'm disappointed" comments have been met with sympathy, the NFL's rationales for their punishments have been met with relative understanding, and Tom Brady's statements have been met with skepticism and, eventually, more sympathy, but all three of these responses have one common circle in their Venn Diagram: "This is stupid."
But if the story is so stupid, then why are NFL fans clinging to every last detail of the story as it breaks? Simple. The way that this story ends will have a direct impact on the 2015 season. The Patriots were handed a remarkably harsh punishment for the scandal, most notably a 4 game suspension for Tom Brady and the loss of future picks (a first rounder in 2016 and a fourth in 2017). Kraft "reluctantly" accepted his punishment, whereas Brady has fought tooth and nail to have his reduced.
Here is a quick take timeline of the events, per NFL.com:
-January 18: Initial reports of the Patriots' potential discretions arise, in which a ball was discovered to not meet normal PSI standards.
-January 20: NFL finds (and announces) that 11 of 12 balls that the Patriots used were underinflated.
-January 22: Brady denounces rumors ("I would never do anything to break the rules").
-January 23: NFL appoints Ted Wells to investigate the situation.
-January 26: Robert Kraft denies all wrongdoing ("I am disappointed in the way the entire matter has been handled and reported upon").
-May 6: Wells Report is released, finds that the it is "more probable than not" that Brady knew of shenanigans.
-May 11: Brady is suspended four games and the Patriots are fined $1 million and stripped of 2016 first and 2017 fourth round picks.
-May 14:Patriots respond to the report and the NFLPA appeals Brady's suspension.
-June 2: Roger Goodell appoints himself the arbiter of Brady's appeal and refuses to recuse himself of the duty.
-June 23: Brady's appeal concludes.
-(Early July, not in timeline): NFLPA announces it will sue the NFL for loss of paychecks if suspension is upheld.
-July 28: It is announced that Brady's suspension will be upheld, cites destruction of Brady's phone by Brady in the decision.
-July 28: NFL announces they're suing the NFLPA to uphold the decision, injunction is filed in New York Court. NFLPA moves for the suit to be heard in Minnesota, Minnesota judge denies the request.
-July 29: Brady posts on Facebook, states that it was made explicitly clear the phone wouldn't be needed in the investigation.
-July 30-31: Chris Mortenson reveals he was fed false information on the scandal by the NFL, backs out of interview with WEEI.
-July 31: WEEI announces that Mortensen's false source was Mike Kensil, NFL's VP of game operations. Mortenson refuses comment (read: unconfirmed).
The biggest takeaway going event by event is that there are two really scary things going on here:
1.) The media is being used as a weapon by both sides.
2.) The NFL has become strategic to a SERIOUS fault in their punishment and arbitrations.
There is no transparency from either side as these events unfold, there is only what either side wants the general public to see. If you don't believe me, look at how public opinion has shifted with every bit of news. In the last three days, people have used Brady destroying his phone as damning evidence, and the day after that Brady released a response and everyone backed away with their hands up. It can't be both, someone has to be in the wrong. There is no objective reporting on this scandal, but ironically confirmation bias hasn't been much of an issue either. It's simply "whoever spoke last is correct."
The other scary thing going on here is the report that is currently surrounding Chris Mortensen. Mortensen, who initially broke the NFL's displeasure with the Patriots, along with the extent of their alleged transgressions, recently backed out of an interview with WEEI regarding the scandal. WEEI later cited the reason for Mortensen backing out as being due to his being fed false information from who WEEI alleged was Vice President of Player Operations Mike Kensil, an unnerving allegation in and of itself. On the recusal, Mortensen stated:
"You guys made a mistake by drumming up business for the show and how I would address my reporting for the first time. I will not allow WEEI, [Robert] Kraft or anybody to make me the centerpiece of a story that has been misreported far beyond anything I did in the first 48 hours. Maybe when the lawsuit is settled, in Brady’s favor, I hope, we can revisit. Don’t call."
Journalism needs to be held to a higher standard than this. Mortensen's argument is, for all intents and purposes, "everyone misreported this and I refuse to be the 'centerpiece' of the misreporting. However, it was Mortensen's initial report that 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots used were under-inflated that potentially sprung the investigation. Now, Mortensen is trying to take the moral high road.
This illustrates an alarming trend in journalism. It's Twitter journalism, whoever can break the story first wins. Of course reporters are compelled to trust their anonymous sources within the league, but if the league KNOWS this then it can sway public opinion any way it so chooses. By feeding Mortensen false information (this is, of course, presuming that the allegations of misreporting are true), the NFL is able to control the public and spring an investigation into something that otherwise shouldn't be investigated. Mortensen's refusal to become a poster child makes perfect sense and it entirely understandable, but it shouldn't need a centerpiece in the first place.
Keep in mind that ESPN hasn't even touched on the Mortensen situation, as they protect their own (including their relationship with the NFL). They know where their bread is buttered, and if they lose their year round coverage cycle with the NFL, expect to see some hockey highlights and someone other than Barry Melrose on for a change.
The other issue that is brought on by the way that this entire debacle has been handled is that it shows how strategic the NFL is in their punishments. Everybody knows that the NFL has a ratings driven agenda, and it's likely no coincidence that Brady's first game back is against the Colts, or Greg Hardy's initial first game back was against the Panthers before his suspension was reduced. But the NFL has a habit of over-punishing players and taking their chances in appeal courts. There was no way Hardy was going to miss 10 games, and Brady's 4 game suspension very likely wouldn't have been upheld if the NFLPA hadn't hardballed the NFL.
Goodell being able to label himself the arbiter in Brady's appeal is completely insane. It was obvious that that was going to be upheld, because the only way that it wouldn't have been was if Goodell had just changed his mind. That's not a way to take care of arbitration. This is on the NFLPA nearly as much as it is on the Commissioner, as they completely lost their chops negotiating the last CBA. But Goodell naming himself the arbiter essentially took away any steam the PA would have had in their appeal, but I digress.
The NFLPA choosing to announce their intention to sue the NFL before Brady's suspension being upheld was announced put the NFL in an all or nothing situation. The NFL played it like a supervillain too. Once the NFL realized that they had nothing to gain by reducing the suspension, they simply upheld it (also, how many people heard about Le'Veon Bell's suspension being reduced to two games on the same day? That strategy works on a few levels.). Then, immediately afterwards, the NFL filed a lawsuit preempting the NFLPA's lawsuit to uphold the suspension in league friendly New York, as opposed to player friendly Minnesota. When the PA tried to get the case moved to Minnesota, the Minnesota judge shot them down, citing that there aren't reasonable grounds to think that NY would be unfairly biased towards the NFL.
Brady and the NFL are in a constant battle for the public opinion, and they're using the media to sway it. That's an incredibly dangerous game, because the public opinion is easily sculpted. It's easy to blame Goodell, but people need to understand just why they're blaming him. The first time that the NFLPA saw the extent of Goodell's power was, of course, Bountygate (wondering how long it would take before that got mentioned?). But a lot of misinformation was spread about Bountygate, and the NFL just stopped covering it and announcing details at some point (presumably because details dried up).
Context is important surrounding these scandals. The NFL was defied by the Saints and the Patriots. The NFL was looking at serious integrity issues around the league. When the Saints were punished, concussions were the talk of the league. Injuries were occurring at an alarming rate, and the full extent of CTE was just being unearthed. The league needed a fall team, and the Saints were that team. This isn't to say that there wasn't a program, but it is to say that evidence; physical evidence; wasn't presented by the league. They talked and talked about it and puffed their chest out, but they never actually brought the evidence forward to the public, rather to the shadow courts that their investigation went through.
Fast forward to 2015, the Patriots were also investigated. Mortensen's tweets spurred an investigation, and public opinion of the "Cheatriots" was in full force. It started as a joke, and eventually snowballed into a full fledged investigation somehow. It's like the NFL saw the jokes that were being made and took every single one completely literally.
I know that people are going to say "why should we care? It's just a game," but to the players involved in this investigation it's much more than a game. It's their livelihood. Players like Brady won't lose sleep over four missed paychecks from a financial standpoint, but if the NFL wins this lawsuit they set several dangerous precedents:
1.) They can leak any information knowing that it will be reported on and make Mark Brunell cry on national television.
2.) They can levy any punishment that they see fit for any action.
3.) They can name the person that levied the initial punishment the "impartial" arbiter in the inevitable appeal.
4.) They can strategically punish and reduce punishments however they see fit, as long as bigger stories break at the same time.
5.) They can preempt player lawsuits by filing lawsuits of their own in a more league-friendly court.
The only way to really change this trend will be by changing the way that the league is reported on. Investigative journalism needs to make a comeback. The NFL as it is controls the world's largest supplier of sports' television, and as such they can bleed themselves into other major networks through their own reports. It's become a shadow organization that can change public perception on players in a heartbeat.
Bill Simmons was canned by ESPN for criticizing major organizations that support ESPN. This isn't to say that Simmons is a Saint, he's a bombastic personality that can sometimes be a bit brash with his accusations, but he does have a few solid points. Grantland is a reputable website (despite Bill Barnwell's hate for the Saints) and it does do some seriously solid reporting. If the reports on Kensil are true, then the NFL loses a lot of credibility as a general source. The reports that Kensil leaked false information are (to me) easily the most unnerving of any of the above information, as they're arguably the reason that this case even came about and gained the amount of steam that it did.
Therefore, if the reports on Kensil are somehow confirmed (and if Brady wins the upcoming lawsuit Mortensen may well confirm them), NFL analysts' anonymous sources need to be put under fire, and the Twitter age needs to take a turn. Headline grabbing won't always work. For contract or trade announcements, sure, but things that could potentially break a massive scandal should be looked at with an air of skepticism. Mortensen is a symptom of the problem, he isn't the problem, so I wouldn't blame him for not wanting to take full accountability for the entire mess of a situation. Analysts like Adam Schefter should also take a look at their sources, as this could become a serious issue in the not so far future. Goodell having the media in his pocket gives him a weapon that shouldn't be wielded by a shadow organization like what the NFL has become.
By definition, journalism should inform. It should spark criticism and debate. NFL journalism no longer does so, certainly not adequately. One tweet is blindly retweeted by dozens of websites, and eventually a false story can spread like wildfire. At that point, the Patriots aren't the victim, the fans are. The game that they follow is cast into question, and they're forced to reevaluate if they can even follow a league with practices like the ones that they witness.
This offseason, some incredible things happened. Eric Berry came back from a lymphoma diagnosis and recovered from chemotherapy a pound heavier, in addition to being cleared to practice last Wednesday. Hundreds of players got their first shots in the NFL. The Saints made a shift towards making their offensive line and defense better in the draft. The point is some completely unprecedented things happened in the last several months. Instead, we've been forced to watch an extended episode of Law & Order, the only problem is that the "Executive Producer Dick Wolf" title card hasn't appeared. And it won't, until people start paying attention what matters.
Fans shouldn't love a league in spite of the league, and yet that's what they're forced to do. The NFL is so suspicious in how they handle these things, and websites are so excited to jump on any iota of information that they can find, that a 24 hour news cycle becomes hashing through and rehashing the same information, wondering what Brady means when he says "I did nothing wrong." Did he blink? Did he twitch? Did he flash a double peace sign and get onto a jetliner, never to be seen again? Nobody really knows anymore. And nobody ever will unless they dig deeper, which people refuse to do.
The league needs its credibility back, and only the fans and the media can help them gain it. But first, they may need to strip it of the credibility it has so that something new can start. Because if that doesn't happen, fans will keep getting the same things that they make fun of every season. "So and so looks better than ever," "we're really excited to have such and such on the team," "he looks better than ever." Everything is canned and prepackaged, and if fans want any type of candidness on the game that they claim to love, they're going to need to take a look in the mirror and realize that they need to hold the media, the league, and above all themselves to a higher standard in terms of what they're willing to consume.