Wojo: Brady is biggest loser in Deflategate standoff

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

This is high-stakes, low-down poker, and both sides just went all in. The prize in the pot? The reputations of two of the biggest names in football.

Roger Goodell raised his bet and Tom Brady called it, and a federal court likely will settle it. It’s obvious the NFL commissioner and the Patriots star quarterback are guilty of one thing: Abject arrogance.

But on the most important charge, Brady already has lost, long before the final verdict is rendered. He lost his appeal, and stands to lose more by challenging it further. If lack of contrition and fervent denial is a strategy, it’s a horrible one. The NFL may not have a smoking gun in Deflategate, but it has a smoking phone. By instructing an assistant to destroy the cell phone supposedly containing 10,000 texts, Brady didn’t admit guilt, but his actions suggest it.

At the worst, he conducted a coverup, as Goodell charged when he said Brady “willfully obstructed” the investigation. At the least, Brady didn’t fully cooperate. In case his hubris wasn’t clear, Brady said he always destroyed old phones, despite testimony in the Ted Wells report that he still possessed a working older phone.

Whether or not you believe Brady is guilty of cheating or lying or obstructing or obfuscating is almost immaterial. The NFL may not have enough evidence to convict beyond reasonable doubt, but this isn’t a criminal case. It has more evidence than Brady and his lawyers have been able to publicly refute.

It went from peculiar to preposterous Wednesday when Brady responded on Facebook with another strong denial: “To suggest that I destroyed a phone to avoid giving the NFL information it requested is completely wrong.”

Naturally, Patriots owner Robert Kraft jumped back into the fray by calling Goodell’s ruling “unfathomable,” and adding, “I was wrong to put my faith in the league.”

Goodell fights back

Whew. This gets juicier and juicier, sillier and sillier. If Kraft was so convinced of Brady’s innocence, why did he previously accept a $1 million fine, as well as the loss of two draft picks? If nothing questionable took place, why did the Patriots suspend team workers Jim McNally and John Jastremski?

Was Kraft duped into thinking such cooperation would earn leniency for Brady? Probably. Problem is, Brady showed no such cooperation, and Goodell unleashed with the fury of a commish scorned.

Only the most powerful and pompous league in America could turn a few pounds of football air into the ugliest hot-air showdown in sports history. Brady had a chance in this scrap because the Super Bowl-winning quarterback always has a chance, and because Goodell has been wobbling since he botched the Ray Rice domestic-violence issue.

But foolishly, and perhaps unwittingly, Brady and Kraft gave Goodell the perfect way to fight back. Many thought their appeal of the four-game ban — buttressed by lawsuit threats — would lead to a compromise, perhaps a reduction to a two-game penalty. That would hurt Brady but also weaken Goodell, especially because he shamelessly validated his own ruling by conducting his own appeal.

Surely Goodell would play nice with his league’s shining knight, right? Instead, he doubled down, infuriated when he learned the phone was destroyed on or near March 6, the day Brady was interviewed by Wells. And of course, the timing of the 10,000 text messages coincided with the scandal that emerged after the Patriots pasted the Colts, 45-7, in the AFC Championship game.

Brady to blame now

In crimes and lies, there aren’t many actual coincidences. Brady is betting his outstanding record will trump logic, and for some fans (those who slurp chowder daily), it probably will. If Goodell hadn’t been so severely damaged by the Rice case, he probably would’ve handled Brady more delicately. But his tough-guy reputation was on the line and he was about to be branded a Pats patsy, so he lashed back.

This has become personal, with manhoods and reputations tested. Why else would Goodell and Brady grapple so recklessly? Goodell stands to gain very little for his league – why would a commissioner soil a star unless he felt pushed into a corner by the star’s obstinance? A league celebrated for its perception of parity could not be seen bowing to one team or one player.

And why would Brady do little to refute the allegations, beyond vague denials on Facebook? Oh right, he refused to turn over the phone because it contained photos of his model-wife, Gisele Bundchen, or other personal information. I doubt that was the reason, but it would’ve been a better explanation than saying the phone was gone. Historically, the dog-ate-my-homework excuse doesn’t work.

This is on Brady now, no matter what you think of Goodell’s periodic bursts of buffoonery. Yes, it looks horrible that Brady technically received the same four-game suspension as Cowboys defensive star Greg Hardy, who was involved in a domestic violence incident. But Hardy also spent 15 games last season on the commissioner’s exempt list, which is a factor.

The NFL’s evidence isn’t overwhelming, but it was enough to convince a smart man like Kraft to sign off on the team sanctions, a move he now says he regrets. The incredible success of the Patriots is tainted, just as it was with Spygate in 2007. That hit Bill Belichick the hardest. This one hits Brady harder, and pushing it to court could be even more damaging. Before the stain grows, he needs to end a fight he already lost.