The best advice New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is getting is coming from people who've probably never even met him. They are the fascinated observers imploring him to move on, pack up shop, let go of this delusional quest for justice. Unfortunately for Brady, nobody within his own camp seems to be harboring similar opinions. They're clinging to the hope that Brady can somehow keep the taint off his legacy, which is something that isn't really possible in today's world.
If there's one thing we can say about Brady at this stage of Deflategate, it's that he isn't going to live this one down. His legacy obviously will include at least four Super Bowl wins, 10 Pro Bowls, two MVP awards and countless discussions about a glamorous personal life built for TMZ. It also will have a serious smudge because of a mutilated cellphone and a bullheaded mentality that led him to cover his tracks. As much as people love his highlights, you can bet there's far more chatter about the way he's mishandled a controversy that started with slightly deflated footballs.
This used to be a story about whether Brady deserved a four-game suspension for his role in this scheme. Now it's about his character.
"Every player wants to be remembered in a positive light, but a lot of things that you do off the field don't affect what happens on it," said Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, who now works as a radio analyst for the Seattle Seahawks. "Look at Lawrence Taylor. He went through a lot of things off the field, but he still was a first-ballot Hall of Famer because he didn't affect the game. ... What Tom Brady did could affect games, so people look at that closer. People also may think this didn't just happen one time."
Of course, nobody really thinks Brady won't be a first ballot Hall of Famer because of what happened in the AFC Championship Game against the Colts this past January. What is more likely is that he will be judged more harshly because of where this controversy happened (within a franchise that already has been punished for cheating by the NFL) and when it happened (at a time when social media goes crazy over any story involving an A-list celebrity and drama). NFL stars used to rely on some sort of absolution after enough time had passed from their transgressions. Now they're realizing that being a star also means your punishment in the court of public opinion is far more brutal when you screw up.
It's easy to forget now that that Paul Hornung gambled on football and still landed in the Hall of Fame. Taylor and Michael Irvin had multiple drug problems and never had anybody question their greatness. Ray Lewis found himself smack in the middle of a murder trial early in his career (he eventually pleaded to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for his testimony in the case); he'll still go down as one of the best middle linebackers ever.
Now consider the scrutiny former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice faced in the wake of knocking out his then-fiancée in an Atlantic City elevator. And the way Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was scorned after people saw photos of the injuries he inflicted on his child during a whooping. Brady might be one of the NFL's greatest players ever, but he can't change the times he's living in. The bigger the stars, the harder they fall.
Moon actually feels fortunate that his own pro career, which stretched from 1978-2000, didn't push into the social media era. He was accused of sexually harassing a Minnesota Vikings cheerleader in 1994 and arrested for domestic violence against his first wife, Felicia, a year later. The first case was settled out of court, and Moon was acquitted in the second. If a quarterback in today's world found himself neck-deep in those stories, it would captivate the public's attention for months.
The worst abuse Moon faced back then came from hecklers hounding him on game days and questioning whether he'd hit his wife before driving to the stadium. That would the easiest part of a public controversy today for somebody of his stature.
"People remember it all today," Moon said. "Everything follows you because it's blown up more. Back in the day, if Mickey Mantle was drinking at a bar and a reporter saw him, nothing would be said. Now everything feels so big because everybody is fighting for a story and then everybody is weighing in on the story. Something like [Brady's situation] didn't seem like a big deal [initially], but it's just gotten bigger and bigger."
The scary thing about Brady's situation is that he's more determined than ever to keep fighting to clear his name. The only explanation for that mindset is that he's a hypercompetitive guy who built his legacy by refusing to give up. The downside is that he's become such a superstar that nobody close to him can talk him off the ledge. As Moon said, "I don't see how a ball boy would ever deflate a game ball without a quarterback knowing about it. Nobody would try to sabotage their own player in that way."
Moon is making the same kind of common-sense statements that are keeping this controversy smack in the middle of the headlines. It's accurate to say this story has long-lasting appeal because it involves Brady and a high-profile team that has won four of six Super Bowls during his career. But it's staying alive because Brady is handling things irrationally. It's fair to think he would've been hit with a meager $25,000 fine -- which is the going rate for manipulating footballs in the NFL -- had he just copped to his involvement back when this news first broke.
Brady wasn't willing to go that route, and it's hard to see him benefiting from taking his case into federal court.
"The thing he has to understand is that if he loses, he's going to affect his legacy even more," Moon said.
That apparently is a gamble Tom Brady is willing to make at this stage of the game. The problem is that regardless of what happens in the courts, he's already caused plenty of damage that can't be undone.