Bell: NFL's next Deflategate? PED investigation could turn ugly

Jarrett Bell
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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) rushes the line of scrimmage against the Kansas City Chiefs during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field.

As hard as he tried, Tom Brady couldn’t beat the NFL in Deflategate.

What a warning for James Harrison, Clay Matthews and Julius Peppers – three players, along with free agent Mike Neal, embroiled in a different type of battle against the Big Brother of a pro football business and league headed by embattled Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Brady, one of the most prominent faces of the NFL, finally accepted a four-game suspension after the U.S. Second Circuit Court ruled against his appeal, opting not to pursue the long shot of a Supreme Court hearing.

In addressing the matter on Friday, the New England Patriots quarterback said “personal reasons” ultimately dictated that he swallow his pride and give up the fight.

NFL, NFLPA remain at impasse in PED investigation

Give him credit for trying. A four-game ban – on top of the $1 million in fines and loss of first and fourth-round draft picks for the Patriots – seems like an awfully steep price to pay in the case that involved deflated footballs and such gray areas when it came to the evidence, the science and Brady’s direct involvement. It’s like banning a Major League Baseball pitcher 40 games for throwing spitballs.

Then again, Brady’s suspension extended far beyond what happened to those footballs on the frigid night of the AFC title game in Foxborough, Mass., in January 2015. He was punished harshly, too, for failing to cooperate with an NFL investigation – which most damningly included the league’s contention that he destroyed cellphones that might have included evidence.

Failing to cooperate.

Remember that term when assessing what happens with Harrison and the other players who, with the backing of the NFL Players Association fueled by chief DeMaurice Smith, have refused to conduct face-to-face interviews with the league as it investigates allegations from an Al Jazeera America documentary in December that linked them to performance-enhancing drugs.

Tom Brady says it was a 'personal decision' to accept 4-game suspension

Peyton Manning, the biggest name in the case, was cleared last month. But Manning – no longer a member of the players union since retiring, yet still a large presence in the football world with myriad options for involvement in the NFL – cooperated with the investigation to the point that the league was satisfied. This, months after Charlie Sly, a former intern at an anti-aging clinic, recanted the allegations that he made during a secret recording for the documentary.

Why won’t Harrison and the others – who submitted affidavits refuting the allegations – agree to interviews?

No doubt, it’s a matter of principle.

Harrison, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker who has clashed with the NFL on several issues over the years, told me after reporting to training camp last week that he’s perturbed that the league hasn’t followed protocols established in the NFL steroids policy.

Good point. Where’s the failed drug test?

Beyond that, the NFLPA has contended that without any evidence beyond the allegations from the media report, the players shouldn’t be subjected to the interviews.

The players indeed have a point, and the union’s concerns that such a move would set a precedent is reasonable. The next unsubstantiated allegation could fuel the next investigation.

Of course, the NFL, which viewed the affidavits as a positive step, doesn’t agree with that.

Here we go again. The NFL and NFLPA both digging their heels in.

Yet what’s clearly at risk for the players for refusing the interviews is another mess that Brady knows all too well. If the impasse continues, the NFL – concerned about perceptions, too – will likely subject the players to discipline for not cooperating with an investigation.

And you know what that could mean: Suspensions, a court battle, appeals.

Although the NFL is still publicly maintaining that it is focused on securing the face-to-face interviews – which would allow for follow-up questions that go beyond what was stated in the affidavits – it is no secret that the next action could be to move on the failure-to-cooperate front.

From what we know about this case and allegations, it would be a shame for the players to be suspended for a case stemming from weak allegations.

Yet principles can come with a steep price. Unfortunately, we’ve seen issues before that have mushroomed into bigger-picture battles between Goodell’s NFL and Smith’s NFLPA.

The next battle always looms.


Follow Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell

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