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In Deflategate ruling, everyone wins but Roger Goodell

Super Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle SeahawksSuper Bowl XLIX - New England Patriots v Seattle Seahawks
Tom Brady of the New England Patriots celebrates with the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks 28-24 to win Super Bowl XLIX at University of Phoenix Stadium on February 1, 2015 in Glendale, Arizona. Photograph by Christian Petersen — Getty Images

Football fan or not, you likely heard that there was a little bit of NFL-related news yesterday.

Okay, it wasn’t so little: the year’s most hotly debated, picked-apart sports “scandal” finally came to a quasi-conclusion: a federal judge ruled in favor of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s appeal of his four-game suspension. The punishment, which the league’s all-powerful commissioner Roger Goodell handed down back in May and reaffirmed in July, was erased.

The decision is being treated by many pundits as a debilitating loss for the league— don’t be so sure. In fact, it is only Goodell, and not the league he runs, that is tarnished. Brady’s return to the field is good for business for many different parties.

It’s good for TV ratings for the first four Patriots games, including the Thursday night opener versus Pittsburgh on NBC and the other three, all on CBS. The networks should be pleased. After all, would most people prefer to see veteran quarterback Tom Brady, or untested, unheard-of rookie backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo?

It’s good for merchandise retailers: Tom Brady was the No. 1 top-selling NFL jersey for the first time ever in the fiscal quarter from March through the end of May, according to a July report from the NFLPA. Expect sales of Brady jerseys to rise even higher.

And Brady’s exoneration is, believe it or not, good for the NFL’s reputation because it allows the public and the media to move on. Think about it this way: whispers of Brady deflating footballs first began all the way back on January 18, after the Patriots walloped the Indianapolis Colts in last season’s AFC Championship Game. It took almost eight months for fans to get an answer, one week before the start of the new season, on whether Brady will play. (Yes, the league is appealing the ruling—more on that in a moment.) The NFL ought to be pleased this is over, even though it didn’t get the conclusion it wanted.

No one has shorter attention spans than football fans. A season riddled by domestic violence charges against players? Largely forgotten already. A court battle between the league and one of its brightest stars over whether he knowingly took air out of footballs? Soon to be forgotten. Yes, big and bold-faced and controversial though Deflategate was, fans are ready to focus on football. Even Patriots haters that reveled in the scandal at first eventually became bored. It went on too long.

“This one is different,” you might argue, “this one really makes the league look bad. Fans won’t soon forget this.” That’s what people say every time. The business of America’s violent pastime keeps growing unscathed. The NFL is chugging toward $10 billion a year in revenue, divided up among its 32 owners, and those owners have continued to put their faith in Goodell and, correctly or foolishly, credited him with its financial success.

You might think those owners will finally turn on their fearless leader. Indeed, one of them, Robert Kraft of the New England Patriots, has very publicly soured on Goodell, with whom he was once so close. Another owner, Arthur Blank of the Atlanta Falcons, already made a clear statement of displeasure in an interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “It’s not healthy for the NFL to be in the kind of litigious position that it’s been for last several years,” he said. “I think that the commissioner is working hard to hold up the respect and integrity of the game, the competitive balance of the game and the shield. Having said that, I think we have to find ways to get to a better place sooner with the NFLPA.” Yet: note the careful praise of Goodell there, despite Blank’s critical note. None of these rich people wants to fire the commissioner, and they will resist doing so as long as they can.

If there were approval surveys of Goodell, he’d possibly be at an all-time low. His decisions have looked inconsistent. (The four-game suspension he assigned Brady was twice as long as the punishment he initially gave Ray Rice for beating a woman in an elevator, before the entire world saw videotape and Goodell corrected the error.) Judge Richard Berman, who vacated Brady’s suspension, concluded that Goodell didn’t give Brady adequate notice that he could get suspended and didn’t afford him a truly “independent” investigation—and this is one of the sport’s most recognizable stars. (Brady, apart from a forceful, likely-lawyered statement posted to his Facebook page, wisely kept his mouth shut during the entire situation.) For Goodell, Deflategate was a disaster. Goodell, not Brady, “has become Deflategate’s new, unwilling star,” wrote The New Yorker, and the scandal, The Washington Post wrote, has made him look, “unfit to serve his office.”

The very best thing for the league now would be to let this scandal die. It ought to take the defeat (both the court ruling and the symbolic loss) and move on. Instead, Goodell immediately filed an appeal. Now the owners will anxiously watch this final legal Hail Mary through their fingers like a child at a horror movie. They need their fall guy.