NFL commissioner Roger Goodell put down the hammer -- again -- Tuesday, upholding the league's four-game suspension of Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady and forcing one of the game's most accomplished players to take his case to federal court.
But in announcing his ruling, which at times was blistering in its accusations against the quarterback, highlighted by the revelation that Brady destroyed his cellphone and thus a key piece of evidence, Goodell may have taken something from Brady that he may never get back: the benefit of the doubt.
Brady's legion of supporters, many of whom suggested there was no wrongdoing on his part in the AFC Championship Game last January, will find it difficult to square the revelations included in Goodell's 23-page ruling with their backing of the game's most dominant quarterback.
Goodell wrote that Brady was told numerous times in advance of his March 6 interview with league-appointed investigator Ted Wells that he would be asked to turn over all relevant materials in the case. And one of the most relevant was his cellphone, which included a flurry of texts to Patriots equipment men John Jastremski and James McNally soon after reports surfaced the day after the championship game that the NFL was investigating whether the Patriots illegally used underinflated footballs in the first half.
Though the NFL has no subpoena powers, the fact that Brady directed his assistant to destroy a cellphone he had used since last November until either the day before or the day of his interview with Wells suggests the quarterback had something to hide. The fact that Brady didn't inform the league until June 18 -- just five days before his appeal hearing -- that he had the phone destroyed only reinforces that suggestion.
We'll never know what was in those texts or emails, but Brady's actions bring to mind the expression that the cover-up is worse than the crime.
It is getting harder and harder, even for Brady's most loyal defenders, to explain his actions in a controversy that has raged for more than six months and no doubt will be a focus of attention through what is expected to be a lengthy appeals process in federal court. Brady has every right to fight the suspension, but right now, he is losing badly in the court of public opinion.
Brady himself barely has said a word about his case in public since offering a clumsy and uncomfortable-to-watch explanation four days after the AFC Championship Game, and then more denials in a pre-Super Bowl interview with NBC's Bob Costas. But he has been unconvincing. If there was no smoking gun uncovered in Wells' 243-page report, there certainly was enough circumstantial evidence to suggest that Brady was aware of the Patriots pushing the PSI envelope with the footballs.
Maybe the cellphone was that smoking gun, but we'll never know, because it has been destroyed -- something Brady said he routinely does with phones he no longer uses. But that doesn't explain the fact that the phone he used before last November still was available. And it certainly doesn't explain why he would have the phone he used to text McNally and Jastremski destroyed either the day before or the day of his meeting with Wells. The fact that he didn't let the NFL know the phone and its records were not available less than a week before his appeal makes it seem even worse.
Look, I think the world of Brady as a player; he may be the greatest quarterback ever. But I hate that he cannot offer any clarity on this situation, the kind of clarity that would show that he didn't skirt the rules. He has been unconvincing at every turn, and the fact that team owner Robert Kraft opted not to fight the sanctions levied by Goodell at the team only puts Brady further on an island of suspicion.
I wish it were only about what Brady has done on a football field -- those four Super Bowl championships, those three MVP trophies, those remarkable statistics. But he hasn't offered proof that he should be exonerated, and the revelations offered in Goodell's decision only cast more doubt on his case.
Maybe something better will come out in a court of law, where Brady's only hope now lies. Or maybe he'll just have to live with the suspicions that simply won't go away.