'Deflategate' unlikely to harm NFL brand, experts say

By Frank Pingue (Reuters) - The National Football League has managed to flourish through a number of highly-publicized fiascoes in recent years and sports experts expect more of the same despite a months-long battle with its most popular player. Quarterback Tom Brady had his four-game suspension tossed out by a judge on Thursday and the ordeal may prove to be a boon for the NFL when his New England Patriots open the 2015 regular season next week. "Typically, when you look at almost every bad thing or everything that would be negative or is to be avoided in sports they almost never affect the bottom line," Robert Boland, professor of sports law at Ohio University, told Reuters. "Thursday night's game will probably have the highest rating in years for a regular season game ... it will probably even be the most-watched TV show before the Super Bowl anywhere in the United States." Brady, who won his fourth Super Bowl with the Patriots in February, was originally suspended four games over his alleged role in a scheme to deflate footballs during his team's penultimate playoff game last season. The saga, which became known as "Deflategate," gave the NFL its third consecutive tumultuous offseason following a concussion litigation settlement in 2013 and the video from last year that showed former Baltimore running back Ray Rice delivering a knockout-blow to his then-fiancee. "The perspective to keep in mind is that the NFL has been an economic business juggernaut for decades ... that would be very difficult to stop," Rick Horrow, a sports business expert at Harvard Law School, told Reuters. "With big businesses there are always brand crises. And looking at the history of major business in the United States and globally, the natural evolution of companies always directly relates to their ability to rapidly and consistently respond to brand crises. "This may be one of those times." While a federal judge in New York vacated NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's decision in July to uphold Brady's four-game ban, 'Deflategate' is far from over as the league promptly decided to appeal the ruling. BETTER USE OF TIME For some, the time dedicated by Goodell and Brady to sorting out the 'Deflagate' issue, which surfaced in January, could have been better used elsewhere. Boland suggested Goodell could have spent the time promoting the Heads Up program aimed at improving the health of young players while Brady could have been an advocate for clean play. "We have not had a league in a long, long time fighting so publicly with one of its most bankable stars," said Boland. "There is certainly some loss in that -- whether it's a loss of innocence, whether it's a loss of opportunity to deal with bigger issues that might be facing the sport. "It's really a question of what opportunity has been lost in fighting this battle." Amid months of recriminations and lawsuits, the stakes in the 'Deflategate' saga grew beyond a mere four-game suspension. For the NFL and the union, the case became a test of how broadly to interpret Goodell's authority to discipline players under the players' collective bargaining agreement with the league. For Brady, the allegations threatened his legacy as one of the NFL's all-time greats. "The optics of a commissioner of a very wealthy league suspending a player who may have known about the tampering of a football for the same amount of time as a player who allegedly committed assault on a significant other with weapons involved is just terrible optics," said Boland. "It's almost a question of where you pick your battles more than whether you win or lose, and that's what I think has been the public sentiment around this case." (The story was refiled to fix a typo in the seventh paragraph) (Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)