First, the NFL picked the court. Yeah, the league thought. Got him. Home-court advantage.
Second, the league put forth the notion that Tom Brady destroyed his cellphone. Yeah, the league thought. Got him. Broke your phone, broke the rules.
Then, the league talked about the process. The process, the process, the process. Yeah, the league thought. Our league, our CBA, our rules. Got him.
But something strange happened along the way to total victory. That favorable court? The judge began to intensely question the league and its motives. The destroyed cellphone? The judge obviously didn't think it was as egregious as the league and many in the media did. That process? It sucked. Wasn't fair.
To sum it up: The NFL were tyrants, and Brady was William Wallace fighting the Brits.
Judge Richard Berman wrote in part of the decision that Goodell "dispense[d] his own brand of industrial justice."
That is a magnificently stunning quote. It is the kind of quote, and ruling, that turns the NFL's world upside down.
Goodell has now lost in court to Adrian Peterson, Ray Rice and Tom Brady. Might want to throw Greg Hardy in there as well—appeals officer Harold Henderson reduced Hardy's suspension from 10 to four games.
None of this is a coincidence. This is a pattern. A pattern of losing. A pattern of the NFL getting its ass kicked because judge after judge, arbitrator after arbitrator, thinks it's a bully, thinks it's unfair.
An independent judge, Barbara Jones, in the Rice case said she believed Rice's testimony over the league's. Judge David Doty destroyed the league in the Peterson case.
To be fair, Doty is to the union what Vulcans are to Starfleet. He constantly sides with the players. But now Jones and Berman have blasted the league, too—Berman in the venue the league wanted.
Brady beat the NFL the way the Patriots beat the Colts in that infamous game. The court found that Brady's awareness of the deflation of footballs was not a fair basis for punishing him. The court also found that it was unfair to hold Brady accountable to be generally aware of football deflation when there had been no previous notice.
One of the more important rebukes of the league, to me, was how the judge bodyslammed the NFL's logic that ball deflation was the same as using steroids.
I'm on record as saying I think Brady was involved. I'm still convinced of that.
As Eddie George said on The Dan Patrick Show after the ruling was announced:
Tom is a great player, great person. I get it. But through the years, coming out of that organization, there has been various times that they've pushed the envelope in terms of trying to win ballgames. Whether it's stealing signals, whether it's getting the playbook or something...if you did the crime, just take the punishment.
But this clearly shows to me that they play by a different set of rules and they're above the law to some degree.
I texted with a Pats player, who simply said, "Tom was screwed by Goodell and now Goodell has to live with getting his ass kicked in court. Yet again."
The union issued a statement, and one part of it rang true:
This decision should prove, once and for all, that our Collective Bargaining Agreement does not grant this Commissioner the authority to be unfair, arbitrary and misleading. While the CBA grants the person who occupies the position of Commissioner the ability to judiciously and fairly exercise the designated power of that position, the union did not agree to attempts to unfairly, illegally exercise that power, contrary to what the NFL has repeatedly and wrongfully claimed.
The court's decision is the kind of stinging rebuke that demolishes legacies, injuring them beyond repair.
I'm also on record as saying I like Goodell, as I do Brady. But this is bad for Goodell. Really bad. It makes him look incompetent and, worse, vindictive and tone-deaf.
His legacy is being annihilated, slowly, drip by drip, case by case.
I began to change my mind about this case after it became clear that the league purposely leaked false information to ESPN about the inflation of the footballs, which is just despicable.
The NFL will probably appeal, but even if it wins on appeal, the damage is done. The appeal will be more about process (there's that word again). This ruling was about fairness, and the lack of it.
What needs to happen now is that Goodell needs to take a good, long look in the mirror. Look at himself. Look at what's happening to the sport he loves. Look at the blemishes caused by his actions.
Sure, the ratings will still be good, but how long will that last as controversy after controversy wears down the NFL's shields?
Is that what Goodell wants for football? Fighting constantly in court? Destroying the brand little by little?
An owner contacted by Bleacher Report said, "Roger isn't going anywhere. He has ownership support. But there's no question all of this is hurting our image."
That's all the owner would tell me. But that speaks volumes.
I'm told by another team official that at least one owner is concerned about the massive amount of money spent on legal fees to prosecute this case. A person familiar with the NFL's legal expenses says that number is approximately $20 million. If the case goes before federal court, the billing continues.
Again, Goodell still has support, but owners are shaking their heads.
There will be a lot of changes. Not with Goodell, but the people around him.
Take a look, Roger. Take a long look. Look at what you are doing. You are destroying your legacy.
You are hurting your sport.
It's time to change.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.