With his Deflategate appeal hearing now a week behind him, Tom Brady must now sit and wait while NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell contemplates how to extricate himself from a situation largely of his own making, but one which seems to offer him no face-saving way out.
On one hand, Goodell spent a reported $5 million of National Football League money for the Ted Wells report on Deflategate — a report whose purportedly scientific analysis of allegedly deflated footballs has been broadly discredited, leaving Goodell in a position requiring him to uphold a harsh, four-game suspension on Brady for an offense that, scientists say, never happened. Or at least, if it did, no hard evidence exists.
On the other hand, Goodell may feel he must also placate a large and vocal faction of the public — a faction that may even include some NFL owners — who simply will not accept a finding of Brady’s innocence.
Perhaps most alarmingly for Goodell, who has made very public displays of inflicting often controversial disciplinary measures on players and teams, with Deflategate case he has opened himself up to a lawsuit by the NFLPA — the player’s union — that could undermine his cherished authority to exercise unilateral discipline.
But on Monday, another potential minefield for Goodell emerged, at least in the form of rumors that if Brady is successful in his appeal and is cleared of accusations that he was involved in a scheme to illegally deflate footballs used in the January 18 AFC Championship Game — he may sue Goodell and the NFL for slander, libel and defamation of his character.
Sports law expert Mike McCann, who frequently writes on legal issues for Sports Illustrated, told Boston radio station WEEI that a defamation suit by Brady would “face an uphill climb,” even if Brady was exonerated by a federal court.
“Brady would need to show that not only were public statements made about him false and damaging to his reputation, but he’d have to show those statements were made with actual malice, which means knowingly or intentionally,” McCann told WEEI. com correspondent Christopher Price.
Ironically, McCann pointed out, the controversy over scientific findings in the Wells report could work against Brady in a defamation case.
“Those defendants [i.e. the NFL] can argue that at the time they made those statements about Brady, there was debate about what happened in Deflategate and thus a lack of consensus about what constituted the truth and what constituted a lie,” McCann said.
But there is another area that could provide Brady an opening for a defamation lawsuit. On January 21, three days after the AFC Championship game, ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen published a story alleging that the NFL itself had determined that the Patriots’ footballs were “2 pounds per square inch below what’s required by NFL regulations.”
But air-pressure data cited in the Wells report itself contradicted Mortensen’s story, meaning that NFL officials likely already knew that the Mortensen report was false when it first appeared.
If Tom Brady can show that Mortensen’s source came from inside the NFL, from someone who knew that Mortensen’s numbers were wrong, he may have an avenue to pursue a charge of “actual malice” in a lawsuit against the league.
[Image: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images]