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Commissioner's ruling casts shadow on Tom Brady's credibility

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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots will still take the field Thursday to start training camp, and they will still enter the season as one of the favorites in the AFC. But their effort to repeat as champions got infinitely more complicated Tuesday, when Commissioner Roger Goodell upheld his four-game suspension of quarterback Tom Brady for his alleged role in using underinflated footballs in the AFC Championship Game.

Goodell's ruling didn't merely call into question Brady's availability for the first month of the season -- the Patriots have survived worse than that, and coach Bill Belichick inevitably has a plan for how to manage it. It also cast a significant shadow on Brady's honesty and credibility. The ruling noted that Brady directed that the cellphone investigators had sought to glean electronic communications from in the case be destroyed, even though Brady knew when he had it destroyed that investigators wanted it.

Ted Wells and his team of investigators had said that they had offered extraordinary protections to Brady -- they had told him that his own lawyers could cull the relevant emails and texts and give them to Wells, so that nobody but Brady would ever have possession of Brady's phone -- but Brady did not tell Wells during his investigation that the phone had been destroyed and that the information was irretrievable. The league did not learn that until Brady's attorney, Don Yee, revealed it in a letter in June.

That doesn't prove there was anything incriminating on Brady's cellphone. But in the court of public opinion -- where the integrity of Brady and the league are going to be judged by fans -- Brady's efforts to dispense with the phone create an uncomfortable optic: that he may have engaged in a cover-up. And that is, certainly in this case, much worse than the offense he was initially accused of. Brady told the league that he regularly destroys his cellphones for security reasons. Even if that is plausible -- wealthy, famous people probably have privacy concerns that the rest of us can't fathom -- what is inconceivable is destroying potential evidence that investigators are seeking, unless you have something to hide or want to thumb your nose at the process. Either motivation would be enough to stoke the ire of the league.

The league didn't have subpoena power, and so it couldn't compel Brady to give up any of the information, but common sense and a weariness with this case makes you wonder why Brady would have the phone he had been asked for destroyed, unless he wanted to make sure nobody could ever find out what was on it. Maybe it's all a terrible bit of luck and timing -- although Goodell's ruling noted that Brady still had an intact cellphone that preceded the relevant one. But then why didn't Brady tell Wells immediately that the phone had been destroyed when he met with him in March?

The Patriots, who opted not to fight the sanctions levied against the team, said after the decision that they could not comprehend Goodell's decision against Brady, and said they remain firmly behind Brady. The appeal decision will undoubtedly again strain the relationship between Goodell and team owner Robert Kraft, but one sentence in the Patriots' statement will hit home with Patriots fans: The Patriots wonder why the league is trying to destroy Brady's reputation.

Deflategate has unquestionably spiraled far beyond what anybody imagined it would turn into -- and what a few underinflated footballs deserved -- when reports first surfaced that the league was looking into footballs in the hours after the Patriots had thrashed the Colts in the AFC title match. For that, the league and Brady can share blame, and it can't make either side happy that a new season is beginning with this case still very much alive. The Wells Report had holes and inconsistencies and plenty of wiggle room. Brady and the Patriots did not cooperate fully with investigators, letting their pique at the system and at the league's power get the best of their judgment in what should never have become more than a workplace investigation. And now everybody is headed to court in a case that could consume many months and some of the respect Brady has earned through his otherwise sparkling career.

There were settlement talks that might have saved both sides from an ugly battle, but among the sticking points, according to a person familiar with the conversations, was that the NFL Players Association and Brady's representatives wanted the record of the appeal sealed. That request was interpreted by those on the league side as an attempt to keep the destruction of the cellphone from ever becoming public, because Brady's representatives surely knew how dubious that decision would look. The talks never got close to a resolution, though, and so the next questions are legal ones. Which jurisdiction will the case be considered in? The NFLPA wants it in the union-friendly courts of Minneapolis; the league wants it in the more league-friendly court of Manhattan. Will Brady seek and receive an injunction that will allow him to play the first month? And can he avoid the worst-case scenario: having to serve all or part of his suspension late in the season?

On Tuesday afternoon, the union released a blistering statement saying it would appeal the league's "outrageous decision."

"The fact that the NFL would resort to basing a suspension on a smoke screen of irrelevant text messages instead of admitting that they have all of the phone records they asked for is a new low, even for them, but it does nothing to correct their errors," the statement read.

There has been no shortage of errors in this case, from beginning to end -- and the real end is now nowhere in sight. Brady will go to court, and for the second straight season, nearly as much attention will be paid to what is happening off the field as to what's happening on it. That is certainly not how the league wants to start its season, or how the famously team-friendly Brady wants to risk being away from the Patriots.

In his ruling, Goodell called Brady's direction that his phone be destroyed "troubling." That it is. And so is the idea that a sordid, unnecessary scandal has been made infinitely more problematic by the dubious actions of someone who would rarely make such an ill-considered decision on the field.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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