How does the NFL run a 10-month investigation into the Washington Football Team that concludes “the culture of the club was very toxic” … yet, essentially, the only individual who has faced any public backlash or consequence is Jon Gruden, who never even worked there?
Well, it’s the NFL, that’s how.
Gruden resigned as the head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders on Monday after a series of leaked emails showed him using racist tropes, anti-gay slurs and misogynistic opinions. He was writing to Bruce Allen, Washington’s president at the time.
Even if you cheered Gruden’s resignation, the fact the NFL went through some 650,000 emails and he is the only person to have his communications leak has to rank as an astounding, if not troubling, coincidence. Of course, in some of those emails he blasted NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, including with the use of ugly slurs.
The NFL denied to Pro Football Talk on Tuesday that it was behind the leaks to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.
Hey, anything is possible, but the league office has zero credibility on the subject. If past actions are considered, then this has the look of something directly out of the NFL playbook.
Consider 2015’s Deflategate, where the NFL was accused of not just leaking stories that cast New England quarterback Tom Brady in a negative light, but of leaking stories that turned out to be demonstrably false and then, even when called on it by an outraged Patriots franchise, refusing to correct the made-up narrative.
The NFL wanted the Pats back then – likely because it jumped to a conclusion of cheating before understanding the science of Ideal Gas Law. The league was stung at the idea New England was supposedly bending the rules so soon after the so-called “SpyGate” scandal.
It started the day after the 2015 AFC championship game when Indianapolis contested the Patriots’ footballs. ESPN, citing a “league source,” reported that 11 of the 12 footballs were two pounds or more under the 12.5 PSI minimum.
In fact, none of them were. Not a single one. The NFL knew it. The league had the measurements from the referees. Yet the NFL didn’t correct the report even as it defined Brady as a cheater. It’s a reputation that persists to this day.
The Patriots demanded the league correct the inaccurate story and investigate who leaked it. Goodell’s office simply stated they didn’t believe they were the source of the leak, but even so, it just let the falsehood sit out there.
So the NFL either purposefully created a fake story that was prejudicial to Brady, or purposefully let a fake story that was prejudicial to Brady linger.
It’s not clear which would be worse. Most likely, it did both.
“You [should] already have released today a statement to the effect of, [‘]ESPN, you’ve got it wrong. You do not have full information, you are irresponsibly reporting information that is untrue,’” Patriots attorney Robyn Glasser wrote to Jeff Pash, the general counsel for the NFL. “… ‘Furthermore, as you now know … your original story that 11 of 12 balls were 2 pounds below the minimum allowable PSI was just blatantly wrong. We know that because we have the information and here it is.’”
Pash did no such thing. The story churned and churned, amplified by the Patriots returning to, and winning, another Super Bowl.
“I cannot comprehend how withholding the range of PSIs measured in the game is beneficial to the NFL or the Patriots,” Patriots vice president Stacey James wrote the league in an email weeks later. “I can only assume, based on the scientific evidence that has been provided to us by multiple independent scientists, that the PSI numbers will be within the scientific range.
“If we had been provided this data within days of the original report, we could have changed the narrative of this story before it led all national news and the damage was done,” James continued.
The league didn’t care. Months later, the inflation levels of the footballs were made public in the Wells Report. Immediately, independent scientists and professors seized the data (which was sloppily measured in the first place) to show the balls were largely within the guidelines of expected science.
“The NFL didn’t just build a murder case when there was no body, there wasn’t even a missing person,” said Julie Marron, who directed the documentary “Four Games in Fall” which decimated the NFL’s case.
As the science evaporated, not coincidentally, a new detail was soon leaked to ESPN: Tom Brady had destroyed his cell phone.
It effectively painted Brady as someone with something to hide, even though it was not relevant to the case – the footballs weren’t deflated, so nothing mattered. Besides, he had been given permission by the league to destroy his phone after providing the information on it.
Brady, after all, feared that anything on his phone might get leaked out. Which, of course, was true – a number of personal emails and texts on all sorts of non-Deflategate topics became public.
Oh well. The destroyed-cell-phone-leak became a hot story. Even as the facts were proving Brady innocent and the NFL guilty, the reverse became the storyline.
It’s far easier to overwhelm the public with emotion than science. One is great talk show fodder. The other is science.
The NFL wasn’t done. Later, when interview transcripts became unexpectedly public in court filings, it was proven the league had mischaracterized Brady’s testimony in a way to further damage him. It also was shown to have provided bogus information to the Patriots in the early days of the scandal, which limited the team’s initial response.
And the following season, the league bailed after a few weeks on a promised scientific study of how air temperature impacts PSI levels. Every scientist on earth guaranteed it would prove Ideal Gas Law is a real thing … if it was ever completed.
This is what the NFL did. And maybe still does.
So the league can say it had nothing to do with the downfall of Gruden – and the protection of everyone else. Maybe it’s just a big coincidence.
But why would anyone believe them?