The NFL owners’ winter meetings began on Monday at the Boca Raton Resort in Florida with several controversial issues scheduled to be discussed. Even though the owners approved some oft-contested rules regarding a legal catch and unsportsmanlike penalties along with the NFL’s recent admission regarding CTE, it appears that “Deflategate” will once again dominate the meetings’ headlines. New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft told reporters on Monday that he wrote NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a letter last month asking the league to revisit the penalties handed down to the team in the aftermath of one of the most bizarre scandals in sports history. Specifically, Kraft is asking for the team’s 2016 first-round pick to be returned, as the NFL draft is now just weeks away. The Deflategate scandal occurred during the 2014 AFC Championship game between the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts. Members of the Colts accused the Patriots of intentionally under inflating the game balls during the Patriots 45-7 thrashing, prior to the Patriots’ Super Bowl victory over the Seattle Seahawks.
Goodell confirmed the violation following the results of a month-long probe by independent investigator Ted Wells, who released a sweeping 243-page report that placed the blame for the violation at the feet of superstar quarterback Tom Brady and the team’s equipment staff. Goodell handed down a stiff punishment for the Patriots organization, one in which many believed was exceptionally harsh, and largely due to the fact that the team had been previously caught cheating last decade by spying on opposing teams’ practices. Since then, the term “Spygate” became engrained in the American sports lexicon. Even more severe than Spygate penalties, Goodell stripped the team of its upcoming first round draft pick, a fourth round pick in 2017, a $1 million fine, and suspended Brady for the first four games of the 2015 season. Brady however, was able to play all 16 games in 2015 after initiating a federal lawsuit in New York in which U.S. District Judge Richard M. Berman overturned the suspension. The NFL has since appealed that ruling, arguing its case before the court earlier this month, and is awaiting a final verdict on Brady’s status for the start of next season. Kraft also requested that Goodell drop his appeal of Berman’s ruling in his letter.
When Kraft reluctantly accepted the penalties in May, he told reporters that he wouldn’t appeal the punishment, although Brady pursued his lawsuit independently of the team. As a recommendation from the Wells investigation, the NFL has since modified its policy, with the league maintaining stewardship of the game balls including ensuring that they are inflated within the proper league PSI limits. This task had previously been assigned to individual teams, with the Colts-Patriots game exposing what many believe to be a glaring loophole in equipment management. Kraft told reporters on Monday that, “I personally wrote a letter to the commissioner responding to his comment that if any new facts came up, he would take them into consideration.” In the letter, Kraft added, “And I personally believe that when the league made their decision, they did not factor in the Ideal Gas Law. They admitted that publicly. They’ve had a full year of being able to observe Tom Brady play with all the rules of whatever the NFL was and make any judgments there. We have laid it out pretty straightforward, and now it’s up to them to decide.”
Kraft is referring to the sudden surge of scientific interest in the weight of gas, especially from both researchers and residents of the New England area. Most notably, MIT professor John Leonard (who himself is an Eagles fan), conducted two lectures deconstructing the methodology used by the private firm that Wells relied on in his report. Leonard said that if he saw his students making the errors made by the firm, called Exponent, “I would force them to repeat the experiment and correct the analysis.” Leonard posted his second lecture on YouTube, with a viewer editing the lengthy video down to a 15-minute version with Leonard’s permission. That video ended up going viral in late 2015, with over 17,000 viewers. Leonard now says, “I am convinced that no deflation occurred and that the Patriots are innocent. It never happened.” Kraft also criticized the NFL’s takeover of the game ball inflation responsibilities, saying “They did their own testing, they have their results, but for whatever reason, they haven’t shared them with any of us.”
The relationship with Kraft and Goodell has become one of the most enduring, yet contemporary soap operas in sports. Despite the multiple scandals involving the Patriots, Kraft is seen as one of the premier elder statesmen of the NFL ownership fraternity. Even after the events of Spygate, Kraft had been one of the staunchest supporters of the oft-controversial Goodell throughout the commissioner’s rocky tenure. Some even say that Kraft was one of Goodell’s closest friends among owners. After the Deflategate controversy however, in which Kraft said publicly that he staked his reputation on Brady’s innocence, a war of words culminated with a highly publicized falling out between the two. Nonetheless, Kraft accepted the penalties handed down by Goodell in May and vowed to abide by the commissioner’s decision. An owner told USA Today in October, speaking on the condition of anonymity that, “The relationship is not what it was, but it’s not bad.”
Indeed, it is very noteworthy that Kraft penned the letter himself, as opposed to having a high-priced legal team write it for him. Although the letter was strongly worded, and Kraft in recent interviews has reiterated his grievances with the decision, the fact that no legal action has been taken by the owner is telling. As Sports Illustrated’s Don Banks observes, although addressed to Goodell, the content of the letter is likely directed more towards Patriot fans, who are largely still miffed at Goodell’s punishment, yet perhaps equally frustrated that Kraft has not fought to keep the teams’ draft picks. Banks writes about Kraft, “With the draft looming about five weeks away, he wants to be seen as standing up for his team in the eyes of the fans, while remaining a team player in the eyes of the league.”
As the rest of the country has learned through the years, Patriots fans are a loyal and ravenous breed, and given history between Goodell and the team, Kraft’s letter was likely a shrewd attempt to act as a buffer between his patrons and the league office. It is likely that Kraft himself does not realistically expect a response, saying “We’ve done everything we can do and I actually want our fans to know, I empathize with the way they feel. We have put our best case forward and that’s in the league’s hands now.” After initial speculation that Kraft’s letter went unanswered, Goodell spoke with reporters on Wednesday, saying “I responded to him two weeks ago and told him that I had considered his views and I didn’t think there was any new information in there that would cause us to alter the discipline.” Goodell added, “So there will be no change to the discipline.” Goodell also said that a settlement between the NFL and Brady is not likely, as both parties await the next chapter in the Deflategate saga. Kraft appeared undaunted by the commissioner’s response saying on Monday, “I’m excited about the upcoming season and I’m trying to look forward. We’ve covered that as best we can. I’m moving on from that.”
CBS Sports – Sean Wagner-McGough
ESPN – Mark Reiss
New York Times – Joe Nocera
Sports Illustrated – Don Banks