I am genetically unable to feel anything but antipathy for all Boston-related sports teams. Growing up in New York, the Celtics broke my heart every season with their Larry Bird–era greatness, and the sad-sack Red Sox were like that relative who overstays their welcome, sits on your couch, loses the remote, and never shuts the hell up. The New England Patriots were a merciful afterthought. Not only did they spend the 1980s and early 1990s ranging from middling to awful—save one Super Bowl appearance when they were blown out by the Bears—but they were easily the fourth-most-popular team in their own town (Maybe even fifth, after Harvard crew). That is why the ascension of the dynastic Belichick-Brady Patriots over the last—Jesus—13 years and counting has been like a spreading rash. Boston sports fans have discovered football, and now they have something else to yip about other than Sox spring training or that magical night they played darts with Matt Damon (half of Boston seems to have played darts with Matt Damon).
It is not just that the Patriots have been so successful, it is how they’ve done it. If you are a fan, you see head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady as more intense, more prepared, and more—whatever—gritty than the competition. The rest of the country has long seen them, to quote Charlie Murphy on Rick James, as “habitual line steppers,” people who skirt the rules to win. The Internet— using the rapier Dorothy Parker wit for which it has become known, long ago—dubbed them the “Cheatriots.” That is why so many people outside the Boston region howled for blood when Chris Mortensen at ESPN reported that “11 of the 12 balls” used in the AFC championship game against the Colts were deflated, giving them a nefarious advantage in their 45-7 win. (We now know that report was a lie.) Hell, I went on MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes and said the Patriots should give their Super Bowl trophy to Seattle and the Seahawks should stage a parade down Broadway.
At the center of this ball-deflation scandal was not Belichick but Tom Brady, he of the life so charmed and chin so cleft, that one wondered when his deal with the devil—the real devil, not Belichick—was made. That is why when Tom Brady and the NFL Players Association emerged victorious in court against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell yesterday, his four-game suspension voided, many outside New England felt conflicted. No one likes Roger Goodell (literally no one) but I also heard from friends who really wanted Brady and the Patriots to finally pay a price. Chis Hayes asked me, “I don’t know how to feel about this because I am pro-labor, but… it’s Brady!”
This preamble is all to say that, as someone who cosigns every criticism of Brady, his team, and the sports fandom in the region they call home, I think today we should all rejoice. Judge Richard Berman’s decision spanked not only Roger Goodell but the very idea that being a boss somehow exempts you from the established norms of industrial-labor law. In the words of The Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, Judge Berman “turned Roger Goodell’s desk over and spilled its embarrassingly sparse contents onto the floor. Goodell’s imperious conduct, faulty reasoning and vanity-driven clutching at authority in the Tom Brady case were all exposed in a 40-page decision of measured legal language. Lesson to first-year law students: Collective bargaining agreements don’t give an NFL commissioner the right to act like a petty prince.”
That last sentence is important. Many legal experts, like Roger Cossack on ESPN, assumed that Goodell would win because the collective-bargaining agreement grants the commissioner the right to be the arbitrator on his own decisions regarding player punishment—to in effect be judge, jury, and executioner. But, as ridiculous a setup as this is, Goodell is still bound by broader labor law’s definition of an arbiter as a fair and impartial mediator. Judge Berman ruled that Goodell acted more like a petulant goon than an impartial adjudicator, violating Brady’s rights in myriad ways: not allowing him to examine evidence, to question his accusers, or even understand for what exactly he was being suspended. Berman’s decision made Goodell look like a callow child, over his head, banging a spoon on the table with a diaper full of poop. It also marks the fifth straight time the NFL Players Association has taken Goodell to court and spanked him on the same grounds: the idea that as an arbitrator he is a tyrant, and an incompetent tyrant at that. The previous cases that Goodell lost served to lessen suspensions for players who had been accused of crimes such as spousal or child abuse. Despite the defeats, Goodell could always say he was “fighting the good fight” and that the decisions proved he needed more power, not less. Some of us recoiled at this notion, saying that the thought of nuanced, profoundly serious issues like intimate-partner violence in this man’s club–like hands was a recipe for tragedy.
In the Brady case, the commissioner has no such cover. There was no “good fight” here worth waging, other than Goodell’s fight to show the other owners—who seethe with anger over New England’s success—that he does not play favorites with the Patriots. Goodell is not even an “emperor without clothes” because that implies a power and a station that he does not hold. He is, to use a term we have heard a great deal this month, a “fall guy” for the terrible positions of the 31 billionaire bosses he represents. Those bosses, because of their own petty resentments toward the Patriots owner Bob Kraft, demanded Goodell take this to court. Now Goodell stands before the world nothing more than a naked flak-catcher, and everyone is pointing and having a good chuckle.
But Judge Berman’s decision is bigger than one man’s abject humiliation, and this is why even the most avid Brady-hater should be happy today. It’s about a collective-bargaining agreement meaning something. It’s about a union showing that it will fight for every player until the league finally succumbs to collectively bargaining a personal-conduct punishment plan, appointing actual trained, independent arbitrators in the process. It’s about a union—any union—actually winning under the brightest possible lights, and Lord knows we need every bit of that we can get.
Lastly, it’s a victory for one man’s solidarity with his peers. I am no Brady fan. But I know for a fact that one reason this went as nuclear as it did was because Brady refused to settle and let the NFL save face. Some of this was pride and the genuine belief that he did nothing wrong—or at least nothing different than most teams do. But it was also about his cellphone: that infamous phone he destroyed during the investigation. He did not want to set the precedent of saying that his leak-happy employer had the right to thousands of his private messages: a precedent that the NFL could have used in every case going forward. We live in a country where our civil liberties and notions of privacy have been shredded and most of our labor protections have gone the way of the Betamax. The forces who both despise labor protections and want more access to our lives took a big loss yesterday. That’s a good thing. It pains me to say this, but thank you, Tom Brady. Now, let’s all please go back to wishing you the worst on Sundays.