Continued success breeds disdain. It is not always true, but it holds more often than not in sports. Fans without a specific vested interest in any particular outcome want change, not stability, at the top. Where is the fun of seeing the same person, or team, accomplish the same thing over and over again?
Since the New England Patriots’ ascent at the beginning of the millennium, the franchise has earned that sort of hatred. People have tired of the Patriots’ success for reasons both legitimate and otherwise. Bill Belichick has never been the easiest personality to warm up to, and Spygate gave the league a chance to turn that dislike into mistrust. He turned over the Patriots’ roster relentlessly, and exploited the rules better than anybody else. He cultivated genius status, and that, in addition to some stereotypes about Boston sports culture, made the Patriots seem arrogant.
That never really extended to Tom Brady. Perhaps that was because he was the one player Belichick could not do without, proof that great coaches still need great players to achieve great success. He had his detractors, as any cannon-armed, square-jawed quarterback with a supermodel wife would have. Even those who did not cheer for Brady had to appreciate him. He was easier to resent than to hate.
That all changed in 2015, and in an unlikely way. Sure, Deflategate caused some eye-rolling and hearty laughter from a large sector of the sports community. But if Brady really did order Patriots staffers to deflate footballs below the allowed levels, the quarterback was no longer exceptional. Rather, he was just more proof that his team could not, or would not, win cleanly.
The way that Roger Goodell and the league went after Brady was tone-deaf, but so was Brady’s self-defence. Brady vacillated between declining comment and calling Goodell names. He should have known playing the victim was not a viable move, public relations-wise.
Still, he was right: The NFL’s case was flimsy, and Goodell’s four-game suspension was ultimately overturned, and he has delivered, at age 38, a season firmly in line with the best of his career. Through 16 weeks, Brady leads the league in passing yards and touchdowns, as the Patriots have the best record in the AFC — even as his receiving options have dwindled because of injuries. In that sense, Deflategate and its fallout have just stood to reaffirm Brady’s greatness, whether you think he deserves an asterisk or not.