The Persecution of Patriots Nation

After 'Deflategate,' Pats fans are mad as hell – and they're looking for revenge against Roger Goodell and the NFL's "sting" operation

The weight of Pats Nation has been lifted from Tom Brady's shoulders. Credit: Stacy Revere/Getty

We were all so innocent back on January 18, when the New England Patriots destroyed the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC championship game. Tom Brady was just another supermodel-loving quarterback with an eye on a fourth Super Bowl ring. Ted Wells and Richard Berman were only household names amongst the more dedicated members of the greater New York legal community. And no one in the media could reasonably claim any expertise in the basics of football PSI measurement.

It was all so long ago – eight-plus months that have felt more like years. What started out as seemingly small-time rumblings from the Indianapolis press ballooned into a national scandal of hilariously epic proportions, one that carried through Super Bowl XLIX in Glendale, Arizona, and back across the country to the NFL offices at 345 Park Avenue. After months of investigations and doses of discipline meted out from commissioner Roger Goodell, Brady was suspended four games for his alleged awareness that team employees had deflated game balls below NFL guidelines and then used them against Indianapolis in the playoffs; Patriots owner Bob Kraft also agreed to forfeit a first- and fourth-round pick and pay a $1 million fine. Instead of raising a Super Bowl championship banner tonight, the Patriots were prepared to recognize Brady's glaring absence instead.

But now, Brady will play, as his suspension was tossed aside last week by a U.S. District Court Judge. The team still loses the draft picks and the dough – for now ­– but they have their star playcaller back for a full slate of 16 regular-season games, and millions of Patriots fans from Foxborough to San Mateo (Tom Brady's hometown in California) are frothing for revenge on the league, on Goodell, on literally any entity that deigns to stand in their way, from this point all the way to Super Bowl 50 in Santa Clara, California – just a few miles from Tom Sr. (who is defending his son on local Bay Area radio call-in shows) and the rest of the Brady clan.

Without a dog in the "Deflategate" fight, I tried to limit my daily intake of related news. From a distance, without the emotional attachment, I still found the entire debacle to be exhausting, mostly pointless and an embarrassment for the league. But I was also fascinated by the innate chemical reaction it induced in Patriots Nation. Having attended college in Boston some years ago, I still have many friends and acquaintances in the area, and these last few months have morphed many of them from well-adjusted, rational people into emotional, hypersensitive wrecks. It's not uncommon for fanbases, in times of crisis, to adopt some measure of "us against them," but this was to a higher degree than I'd ever seen. Did they feel that Goodell and the NFL were out to get them? Did they even get to enjoy a second of the Super Bowl win over Seattle? Will they ever trust ESPN again? And what happens now that Brady has been vindicated? These were the questions; I needed answers.

So I enlisted three people to assist in this endeavor, who each had a specific role to play – and a unique platform to use – during the past eight months: Chad Finn, the sports media reporter for The Boston Globe and a Boston.com columnist; David Portnoy, the founder and editor of Barstool Sports, home to perhaps the most fervent and passionate collective of Pats fans on the web; and John Dowd, the longtime trial lawyer – best known for his investigation into Pete Rose's gambling on baseball – who started a website to keep the "Deflategate" record straight.

With their insight, I hoped to better understand how Kraft has salvaged his own reputation, how Goodell's is beyond any reasonable expectation of repair and how Patriots fans are convinced this is the start of yet another memorable Super Bowl run, one that ends with Goodell handing the Lombardi Trophy to Brady and coach Bill Belichick yet again, albeit under more unique circumstances.

That is their dream – one which follows a long nightmare that only just ended.

Even with the NFL's history of investigating the Patriots for various infractions – a history that continues to be written and revised seemingly without end – few anticipated the "Deflategate" saga would balloon into what it became.

David Portnoy: When it first started, there was no way to see it being that big of a deal. But as it went on, it became obvious what the NFL and guys like Mike Kensil ­were trying to do. They were trying to frame the Patriots and embarrass them before the Super Bowl and distract them. It changed quickly, but the initial night when it happened – I mean, the Colts are sore losers, that's part of it. The Colts always complain. The Patriots have beaten the Colts like a drum for the better part of 20 years. It's always something with the Colts. It doesn't matter when we play them or how badly we beat them; they always scream that we cheated or did something. So it was the Colts being the Colts. I didn't give it much thought.

Chad Finn: When something goes against them, every NFL team's fanbase feels something along the lines of "They're out to get us." It's just the paranoia that comes with being a fan. But with the Pats, there's more of that, in part because they've had issues, and in part because there's a certain jealousy regarding not only the success that they've had, but how they've gone about achieving it.

A lot of people around the league and in front offices really want to see them get comeuppance, even if it's not justified or even if the league's punishment greatly exceeds whatever they happened to do. Patriots fans look at it and say, "They're out to screw us." In this case, it certainly looks that way. Whatever Goodell's motivation was, I think you can connect a few dots here and say that he misrepresented some things along the way that enhanced their argument, that they've tried to stick it to Brady and the Patriots.

If you look at the recent track record, they've messed up the concussion stuff greatly, they've messed up the Ray Rice stuff, the Greg Hardy suspension, on and on it goes. So [Goodell] needed a win. He took aim at the league's most prominent franchise and most prominent player and he had 31 owners who were probably thrilled with him. But now it seems to have backfired. Roger Goodell has caused his own problem here. He is probably the least popular man in New England and, honestly, I really couldn't tell you who No. 2 would be.

For Dowd, who retired in late 2014 from DC-area law firm Akin Gump, his first interest in the case came with the release of the NFL-commissioned Wells Report, which determined it was "more probable than not" that Brady was aware game balls had been deflated. Dowd lives in Virginia, but has a house in Massachusetts. He doesn't consider himself a Patriots fan, per se, but this, he felt, was too important an issue on which to stand pat.

John Dowd: I was actually offended that anyone would turn in something like [the Wells Report]. If I was the commissioner, I would've rejected it and asked for a refund. I don't mean that pejoratively but as a matter of professional work. I would also ask, "What the hell took so long?" What are we talking about, nine witnesses? You can interview all those people in a day. You can interview them again on a second day. And it should've been a decision before the Super Bowl, so as not to cast a pall across the game. It was like Seinfeld; it was all about nothing. I was surprised. Paul, Weiss [Ted Wells' firm] is a tremendous law firm. I have tried cases with them and I've seen their good work and that report is not a good piece of work. It's just not. I was shocked.

In short order, ESPN's Chris Mortensen would become the national media's most prominent and seemingly well-sourced reporter on "Deflategate." His January 21 report that 11 of 12 AFC championship game balls were underinflated by 2 PSI was later found to be incorrect by the Wells Report. To this day, Mortensen has only expressed regret for his error in specificity and said that he should've done a "better job vetting" the story, but has refused to officially retract the report.

Portnoy: Look, you don't need to be perfect. It was obvious pretty quickly that the NFL had lied and leaked information. The Patriots sent emails to the league, saying, "You have the right information, tell ESPN to correct it." ESPN and the NFL have a history of correcting everything they think is incorrect instantly, and they left the lies for the public to consume; it shaped the whole narrative. Chris Mortensen, to this day, says he stands by the story. They're all responsible. 

Finn: You look at the way the Mort thing has played out – and to a less-publicized degree, Peter King from Sports Illustrated, who had sort of the same information – you could look at it and say, "These reporters are really naive or they're complicit in what's happening." And the more you look at the misinformation that was thrown out there and the fact that – and this is what really angers Pats fans as well – the NFL had a chance to say, "No, that report is wrong," and they never did, it certainly looks like wrong information was fed.

And when that wrong information was relayed, the NFL didn't step up and say, "No, this is wrong, this isn't the case." So any conspiracy theorist could look at that – and there was a pretty good conspiracy there, connecting all the dots ­– it really looks like the NFL used ESPN and these prominent, highly placed reporters to sort of do their bidding to help them make their case against the Pats and put the Pats in the crosshairs. 

The low point for many Pats fans was the surprising capitulation of team owner Bob Kraft. Many had expected him to fight this battle to the end, but Kraft's decision on May 19 to accept Brady's four-game suspension and forfeit draft picks was seen as surrender.

Portnoy: Kraft expected that he had a handshake deal with Goodell: If we stop taking shots at the league, they'll get rid of this suspension and we'll move on and stop this idiocy. And Goodell went back on the agreement. And when that happened, Kraft went back on the offensive, said he made a mistake, he apologized to the fans and from that point we were fine. The Patriots became one with their fans again, from the ownership all the way down.

I think Robert Kraft had the best of intentions to end this sooner, save face for the Patriots, save face for the NFL – but unfortunately Goodell was offered an olive branch and he snapped it in half like a moron.

Finn: I think he made it pretty clear that he was expecting quid pro quo and that the suspension would at least be reduced. I mean, look at what they accepted – that's a huge penalty, no matter what. They lost a million bucks, which is probably nothing for them but still a huge fine, and a first-round pick. You look at Belichick's history of drafting and they've never really blown a first-round pick. They've had guys who had brief careers who didn't live up to their billing, but they were contributing players and a lot of them have been core players, so they've taken away a guy who's most likely an important part of the Patriots' future. That's a steep price to pay, and Kraft agreed to give that up. Yet when Goodell arbitrated on his own original ruling, didn't reduce it and sort of doubled down by saying Brady destroyed his phone, Kraft was legitimately pissed off. I think he felt a little bit betrayed.

On July 28, Goodell refused to reduce Brady's four-game suspension, in part, he said, because Brady's destruction of a personal cellphone displayed a lack of investigatory cooperation. That prompted Dowd to get more directly involved. As the man who investigated Pete Rose's gambling activities as special counsel to MLB Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti, Dowd is well-versed in matters of sport and the disciplinary powers commissioners should hold.

With nearly 50 years of legal experience to offer, the 73-year-old Dowd decided to start the blog DeflategateFacts.com, sign up for Twitter (@DeflategateFact) and embark on some of the most impromptu pro bono work of his life: writing and speaking publicly about the legal faults with Goodell's investigation and the NFL's actions in general.

Dowd: The straw that broke the camel's back with me was the decision by the commissioner, where he bushwhacked Tom with the phone business. I had recalled reading the Wells Report and Wells did not view the phone as an issue. I had the same reaction that Judge Berman eventually did – that there was a terrible lack of notice in this case. Having been a criminal trial lawyer for 48 years, notices are absolutely critical in the criminal justice system. In fact, it's critical in the administration of justice anywhere. In fairness to people, they need to know what they are accused of and what the consequences of that are, so that really bothered me and got me going.

I just read Judge Berman's opinion for a third time, and it's really a magnificent opinion. If there's no notice, if people don't provide the opportunity to cross-examine and don't give people an opportunity to look at files, it goes against all tenets of fundamental fairness that we recognize in this country. 

An aside: I firmly believe Patriots fans and fans of the NFL's 31 other teams agree about most everything whereas "Deflategate" is concerned. It's really along the margins where Pats fans will go off on their own, suggesting that this is part of a larger, nefarious effort inside NFL headquarters to smear the Patriots because of their prolonged success. That's a harder story to swallow, but it's also not entirely without merit.

Generally speaking, most (if not all) Pats fans believe that Brady probably did something, in the sense that every single NFL quarterback likes his footballs with a particular feel and grip.

Portnoy: I think that's fair. I think that's how it started. And then as more information came out about what actually went down, it went from a feeling of that to "This was a sting." The problem is, why were these lies made up about what really happened? This is a nothing issue: Every quarterback under the sun has said they want their balls a certain way.

I agree, most Pats fans aren't sitting there thinking he's a choir boy, but it was more like, "This is clearly like this because it's the Patriots," just because they don't like Belichick or Brady, and that's what's caused so much fervor among Patriots fans. We have to defend this to the death because it wasn't a neutral investigation and [Goodell] wasn't a neutral arbitrator. It was clear that this was basically a set-up.

Finn: I think the more reasonable fans look at it and say, "There was a culture of gamesmanship with the way the quarterbacks handle the footballs here." Everybody is aware, I think, that Brady and Peyton Manning sort of helmed the idea in 2006, when it was passed that the quarterbacks get to handle and manipulate the footballs before a game, sort of to their own specifications within specific guidelines.

And as it turned out, the league, for whatever reason – it's hard to gauge what Roger Goodell's motivations are – turned this into some big thing, and it expanded beyond what they probably thought it would be. It became this big mess. Again, the more reasonable majority of Pats fans look at it and say, "Sure, Tom Brady wanted the footballs a certain way, but so does everybody." The crime doesn't fit the punishment. It greatly, greatly exceeds whatever the crime was, if there was a crime at all. 

Dowd: It has a corrosive effect on the confidence in the disciplinary process, the confidence in the commissioner and the administration of discipline. At whatever level, top to bottom, it's got to be done with fairness and integrity and transparency, period. Those are simple concepts and they're not hard to implement. We did it in all of our baseball cases. I mean, the idea of making a mistake, you'd lie awake at night. We talked to witnesses three times in the Rose case. Three times! Just to make sure. The commissioner didn't ask us. It just was our consciences. 

On September 3, "Deflategate" came to an unofficial close. U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman threw out Brady's suspension and, in a 40-page decision, blasted the very core of the NFL's disciplinary process. I talked with Portnoy that day. He told me he already had his plane booked for San Francisco and Super Bowl 50.

Portnoy: It's one of the greatest days of my life. It feels like we just won the Super Bowl for a fifth time. I don't know if they'd give out a Lombardi Trophy for this, but it feels like we should get one, because we just put a bigger beating on Roger Goodell and the NFL than we have on any team. We eviscerated them.

Dowd: I think it was warranted. The judge did a superb job of analyzing and uncovered what was obvious to many people. I think it was a very professional, workmanlike job and I think it's a great result. There's no question that when the system of discipline and justice breaks down, people lose confidence and that undermines the integrity of the sport. That's what happened here. It's a tough thing, but [the league is] going to have to go to work and straighten this out for people to maintain some confidence in the game 

And yet somehow, the longest offseason in Patriots history still won't end. A bombshell report by ESPN's investigative team – followed up a few hours later by Sports Illustrated's own report – uncovers new evidence as to the extensive nature of the activities at the heart of the 2007 "Spygate" controversy. Fans of any team who'd ever lost to the Patriots (see: everyone) reveled in its conclusions; Pats fans were generally unconvinced of the new allegations. HBO's Bill Simmons went on a long Twitter rant. Just another typical Tuesday morning for this offseason.

Finn: The NFL has got us in their grip, and this is the greatest evidence of that yet. I hate the league. I hate how they throw around integrity and all the things they stand for and the way they manipulate people's opinions of various things with facts that aren't necessarily facts – and yet I can't wait for the season to start. Even the absurdity that the NFL put everybody through this offseason, and this whole travesty – I can't quit watching this game. It's the power they have over us and we all know it. It sucks, but boy I can't wait for the season to start. I hate 'em and I can't help it.

Dowd: If I was Goodell, I would take Berman's opinion and say, "Oh, that's how you do it." You see how thorough it is and how he examined everything. He laid out all the facts. He wasn't biased in his presentation of facts. He just laid them all out, and that's what you do.

Portnoy: Listen, [the last eight months] did not take away one second of my enjoyment from winning the Super Bowl. I enjoyed it to the hilt. I cannot wait for football season. Usually, as a Patriots fan, you don't start paying attention until the AFC championship, because you know you're going to be penciled in for that game, and now every single week will be a revenge on somebody or some other team that said something. Now we get to force-feed them their lunch and push them around the ring and bury them. Every week now is a chance to be like, "You should have kept your mouth shut, and now we're going to shove you in a locker and teach you a lesson." Every week will be like that, and I can't wait. 

The 2015 NFL season begins tonight, when the Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough. Roger Goodell is not expected to be in attendance.