Richard Sherman’s premise is possibly being tested. The Seattle cornerback on Sunday expressed skepticism about potential punishment of the Patriots for #DeflateGate, based on the friendship between Commissioner Roger Goodell and Patriots owner Robert Kraft. At this moment, one of the most influential owners in the NFL isn’t feeling very friendly about the office over which Goodell presides.
“If the [Ted] Wells investigation is not able to definitively determine that our organization tampered with the air pressure in the footballs, I would expect and hope that the League would apologize to our entire team and in particular, Coach Belichick and Tom Brady for what they have had to endure this past week,” Kraft said in a defiant statement written on the plane from Boston and delivered in Arizona. “I am disappointed in the way this entire matter has been handled and reported upon. We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to drive the conclusion of this investigation.”
As Sal Paolantonio of ESPN reported in the aftermath of Kraft’s remarks, “As one source close to the Patriots told me, this was Robert Kraft reminding Roger Goodell who he works for.”
Goodell already has shown a willingness to impose discipline on the team Robert Kraft owns, more than seven years ago in Spygate. In the aftermath of that incident, Goodell pushed for the owners to permit rules violations that undermine the integrity of the game to be proven with reduced evidentiary requirements.
“Too often, competitive violations have gone unpunished because conclusive proof of the violation was lacking,” Goodell wrote to the NFL’s Competition Committee in advance of the 2008 league meetings. “I believe we should reconsider the standard of proof to be applied in such cases, and make it easier for a competitive violation to be established.”
Therein lies the dilemma for Goodell. He ultimately obtained the power to determine violations with something other than direct evidence, such as a Patriots employee caught with a camera containing video showing he was videotaping defensive coaching signals. But Kraft wants something other than “circumstantial” evidence, even though plenty of men over the years have ended up imprisoned for life or executed based on circumstantial proof. (Eventually added to that list could be former Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez, who faces murder charges based largely on circumstantial evidence.)
“[Y]ou’re trying to balance the due process with making sure you’re protecting the integrity of the game,” Goodell said in October regarding the challenge of determining the best way to deal with players facing serious criminal charges. “My No. 1 job is protecting the integrity of the game, and I will not relent on that.”
If, as the NFL already has concluded, the proper inflation of footballs represents a game-integrity issue and if, as the NFL already has concluded, the footballs used in the first half of the AFC title game were underinflated, the question becomes whether Goodell will authorize significant sanctions against the Patriots without a smoking gun — even if it means that his friendship with Robert Kraft will go up in smoke.