The new book on Tom Brady is really a story about three men and the political theatre of a multi-billion dollar industry, the shaping of public perceptions, and the destructive grab for power. Casey Sherman and Dave Wedge, a couple of Boston sports writers, have crafted a well-written account of one of the most bizarre controversies in NFL history. Yes, this is the “Deflategate” book that needed to be written. The book opens on the infamous AFC Championship game that launched the Patriots to yet another Super Bowl appearance. The game against the Colts was an absolute blowout but the afterglow didn’t last long as a tweet by a local Indianapolis sports writer tipped off the world that the Patriots may be involved in another cheating scandal. “Of course!” the non-Patriots fans say, “they can’t possibly be this good without cheating!” Thus begins the tale of damaged reputations, public perception manipulation, and palace intrigue.
Here’s a quick recap of the Deflategate saga:
· January 18, 2015 – Patriots defeat the Colts 45-7 at Gillette Field. After the game, allegations break that the Patriots may have manipulated inflation levels of the footballs.
· Super Bowl XLIX – Two weeks later, amid swirling controversy, the Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks for their 4th Super Bowl victory.
· 2015 off-season – The NFL hires Ted Wells to investigate the issue. The “Wells Report” is issued and used as the basis for a 4-game suspension for Brady and a fine on the Patriots.
· 2015 season – Brady wins a legal challenge and plays the entire season. Patriots lose in AFC Championship game to the eventual Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos.
· 2016 off-season – The NFL appeals and wins, allowing Roger Goodell to reinstate the 4-game suspension on Brady.
· 2016 season – Brady serves the suspension and returns to take the Patriots to a 7th Super Bowl and defeats the Atlanta Falcons for their 5th championship.
The book is built like a sandwich – the tasty bits of intrigue in the middle, supported on one end by a biographical journey of Brady, Patriots owner Robert Kraft, and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, and on the other end by a retelling of the 2016 season and Super Bowl LI against the Falcons. The biographies are interesting, particularly if you’ve never taken the time to learn about these three men and their journeys to their respective positions. Whatever your feelings are of these people, they have each reached the pinnacle of their fields and got there in ways that may surprise. The retelling of the 2016 season and the epic Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons is done well, with plenty of player interviews. There is a fair amount of context provided by the reposting of tweets by players and famous spectators as befits modern society.
However, the real meat of this book is the retelling of the legal battle between Brady, Kraft, and Goodell. It’s fascinating. As an avid NFL fan, I was surprised by some of the pieces of false information that I had taken in as fact. One example of this was that the first hint of a flat ball rule violation originated from an interception Brady threw to a Colts linebacker in that 2015 AFC Championship Game. Not only was that not true, the real story behind who tipped off the league was a bit of revelation that will likely surprise a lot of people.
The most interesting aspect of this book, and one that I think deserves more ink than was given by virtue of focusing on just Deflategate, was attributing motive to Goodell’s actions. DeMaurice Smith, the head of the NFL Players Association, when trying to figure out why Goodell would try to go after someone like Tom Brady, thought of one reason – Power. Smith put it like this: “If he (Goodell) can assert his power over Brady, the league’s number one attraction, he can make all other players bend to his will.” The scope of the book is limited to this one controversy, but I think it is a compelling argument that needs to be delved into deeper. There’s a reason Goodell gets booed everywhere he goes and it isn’t just because of this one case.
The key to the power grab is something called “Article 46,” a clause in the Collective Bargaining Agreement that basically gives the Commissioner full control over player suspensions as he sees fit. NFL fans have experienced this seemingly arbitrary punishment system play itself out in other cases – Ezekiel Elliot’s suspension in 2017 being the latest. The NFL office continues to win cases like the ones against Brady and Elliot not on the strength of the evidence but on the language in Article 46. That’s a story that needs to be told. There’s a deeper, systemic problem to the NFL’s leadership and this book serves as testament to the most high profile example of a Commissioner who has run off the rails in a pursuit of absolute power. One league source related a story that the man who makes over $40M per year in salary must be served lunch first before the rest of the staff has access to the pizza party in the office or he gets angry. Sounds like a great boss…
One tantalizing tidbit thrown in at the end of the book was about the trade of Jimmy Garoppolo before the 2017 trade deadline. The palace intrigue of that story may be part of another book down the line, but it’s worth noting that the authors didn’t dismiss the possibility that trading Garoppolo was a kind of “make up call” for Kraft’s handling of Deflategate to appease Brady. As this book demonstrates, teams that consistently win live under a microscope, and the ripples of every action are magnified for all to dissect.
Like mentioned earlier, the central theme could have been fleshed out more, particularly the Ted Wells investigation. That piece of this puzzle is still shrouded in some mystery and while the writers did cover Wells’ relationship with the NFL and how the case turned personal against Brady, they didn’t dig into the Wells Report to an extensive degree. I’m also not sure there was enough space given to the basic concept of where the inflation level of footballs lies on the spectrum of high crimes and misdemeanors in the NFL. Is this homicide or jay walking or somewhere in between? Before Deflategate, I had never once cared or thought about inflation levels of a football outside of pumping up a flat ball to throw around with friends. One of the problems in the public perception fight is the conflation of deflation with past transgressions by the Patriots, fair or otherwise. In other words, Brady was never going to get a fair trial in the eyes of the public because of his employer, but we as people who care about the game of football owe it to the sport to think critically about this and future issues with clear eyes and complete information. We do a disservice to rush to judgment and accept the word of a league office that continues to play by a different set of rules.
If you’re skeptical about reading a defense of Tom Brady from a couple of Boston sports writers, I’d say that my internal cringes were minimal. There were a few times the writers slipped into hero-worshipping prose, but otherwise were fair in criticism of Brady’s handling of the controversy and of Kraft’s fumbling the issue at multiple points. I read the book expecting a more full-throated defense and was pleased to see more objectivity than not. 12: The Inside Story of Tom Brady’s Redemption Season is worth the read if only to reexamine our own judgments about the issue. Brady’s defenders will likely enjoy this book more than Brady’s detractors, but there is plenty for the average NFL fan to enjoy.
If you’re up on social media, consider following me on Twitter @gridironborn