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Goodell Goes AWOL on Deflategate

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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With all the questions that have yet to be answered in Deflategate, one in particular stands out: Where, oh where, is Roger Goodell?

The National Football League commissioner has been conspicuously silent during this week of somewhat manufactured outrage over the New England Patriots using deflated footballs during their AFC Championship win over the Indianapolis Colts. While Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was predictably uninformative during his press conference yesterday afternoon, the most startling revelation was that he has yet to be contacted by the league in its investigation into the matter. The league didn't clarify matters one bit by sending out a press release today noting that once it is "in a position to reach conclusions, we will share them." 

One has to wonder what the NFL stands to gain by dragging its feet. The longer it takes to publicly address Deflategate, the longer sportswriters, fans and former players are left to pointlessly speculate on the implications on the Patriots’ legacy and make lofty demands for penalties based on information we don’t yet have. On the one hand, it must be somewhat of a relief to Goodell that we’ve taken a break from harping on about concussions and painkillers and domestic abuse; on the other hand, I’m guessing air pressure and football physics don’t exactly fit into the NFL’s messaging plan leading up to next Sunday’s Super Bowl.

There’s a sense among some football insiders that the level to which deflating footballs is considered cheating is somewhat overblown, given that it might be a more common practice than is openly acknowledged. If that’s the case -- if this is yet another soft rule that exists in name only while everyone looks the other way -- then the NFL should just come out and say that so we can get on with discussing Richard Sherman’s aching elbow and Marshawn Lynch’s next fine.

If that’s not the case -- if the league actually takes this issue very seriously despite the established protocol of  pre-game ball-handling allowing ample opportunity for tampering -- then that’s fine, too. But failing to deal with Deflategate swiftly simply highlights the NFL’s shortcomings at the culmination of a season in which they’ve been on full display.

Goodell notably took his sweet time to speak publicly after the release of the video of Ray Rice punching his then-fiancee set off outrage, going silent for a week before his news conference announcing an overhaul of the league’s disciplinary process. Though the “new” policy looked suspiciously like the old one, Goodell promised it would address the most troubled aspects of the Rice investigation -- namely, consistency and transparency.

Deflating footballs isn’t a matter of personal conduct, but with each day the NFL remains quiet, we’re left to wonder whatever happened to that promise of consistency and transparency. This isn’t exactly helping assuage the concern that when it comes to the rules and discipline, league officials are still just “making it up as they go along.”

Moreover, the longer pundits and fans are left to their own devices to discuss Deflategate, the more they will lose any semblance of perspective. Troy Aikman believes this is worse than the New Orleans Saints’ Bountygate; Mark Brunell is almost in tears over Big Bad Brady sullying the integrity of the game.”This isn’t ISIS,” Brady felt the need to remind us yesterday.

The NFL has proven that it will enact harsher punishment when public outrage reaches critical mass, though the rule book calls for a $25,000 fine for using underinflated balls. For perspective, the league just fined Lynch $20,000 for grabbing his crotch during a touchdown celebration. If the punishment fits the crime, then Deflategate is a 25-percent more egregious offense than Crotchgate.

Face it: It’s highly unlikely the NFL will hand down any significant penalty that would affect the Super Bowl -- those calling for suspensions and such should prepare themselves for disappointment. And if anything were to have derailed the legacies of Brady and Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, one would think 2007’s Spygate scandal would have done the trick. Belichick might very well think he’s above the law, and there might very well be a “culture of cheating,” or at least of bending the rules, in New England. I’m just not sold that Deflategate is the best example.

Yet until Goodell says something, Deflategate will continue to be our national obsession, with media outlets clamoring to get the newest hot take from any former player in lieu of any new information. It’s perhaps a fitting end to a season in which the NFL’s palpable inaction stole the spotlight from what happened on the field.

(Updates with quote from NFL press release in second paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net