SO WHAT ELSE did you expect?

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell did the only thing he could that wouldn’t incur the wrath of 31 NFL owners by upholding Tom Brady’s four-game suspension Tuesday.

There were hopes among Patriots fans that the suspension would be reduced to two games, or maybe one. There were even prayers that the suspension would be dropped.

But Goodell chose to uphold the suspension – and keep “Deflategate” in the news as NFL training camps across the nation open this week.

With Brady authorizing the players union to appeal his suspension in federal court, this mess is nowhere close to being settled.

Right or wrong, upholding the suspension was Goodell’s only play, especially after it was revealed that the Patriots star had destroyed his cellphone “on or about March 6, 2015 – the very day that he was interviewed by Mr. (Ted) Wells and his investigative team,” Goodell said in his decision. Now we go to court, where a judge will decide whether the punishment was just right or excessive.

And Deflategate, which began on Jan. 18 when the NFL started its investigation into allegations that the Patriots and Brady used deflated footballs in the first half of their 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game, goes on.

It has been a draining process from the start for everyone involved: the NFL, which already had been receiving regular condemnation from the media for its inconsistent punishment rulings in other cases; the Patriots, who were severely penalized although there was no evidence that coach Bill Belichick or owner Robert Kraft knew anything about the deflated balls; Brady, who is fighting for his legacy; and the fans, who simply want to talk about football.

It has been 191 days since the investigation began – enough time to play another season. That it’s taken so long is simply mind-boggling. And who knows when it will end?

The only question is whether a federal court will – or even can – hear arguments and rule on the appeal before the regular season begins.

As it stands now, the Patriots enter training camp Thursday not knowing who their quarterback will be for the season’s first four games – the embattled Brady or Jimmy Garoppolo, the second-year pro. If the case is still in court, will Brady get an injunction to allow him to play? Without Brady, the Patriots will be underdogs in three of those games. If Brady sits out the first four games, he’ll return Oct. 18 for a Sunday night game at Indianapolis, which would be fitting.

Let’s be clear about one thing: Brady is not being punished for his role in deflating the footballs. It’s about his reluctance to cooperate with the investigation and, ultimately, the destruction of his cellphone, something that Goodell found troubling. He’s being punished for engaging, according to Goodell, “in conduct detrimental to the integrity of, and public confidence in, the game of professional football.”

The game has suffered some monumental hits in his years, from concussion fears to domestic violence to continuing use of performance-enhancing drugs. Brady’s transgression, to Goodell, is unlike those but significant nonetheless. The fact that he is one of the game’s biggest stars makes his actions seem even worse.

However charming Brady may be – and he’s one of the nicest professional athletes I’ve ever dealt with, taking time to not only explain football but talk about his family and personal life – his admission to Goodell in the appeal hearing that he destroyed his cellphone was the tipping point. Brady said it is his personal habit to frequently change cellphones and destroy the old ones, but the fact that it came on the day that he was to be interviewed – and days after that interview was confirmed – only makes it look like he was hiding something.

His fight now is about his legacy. He is a four-time Super Bowl winner, a three-time Super Bowl MVP, a two-time NFL MVP. He is regarded as one of the two or three greatest quarterbacks in NFL history, along with his idol Joe Montana and his rival Peyton Manning.

His insistence on trying to have the suspension voided is about wiping out any doubts that he won those championships legitimately. Outside of New England, that will never happen.

And no matter what happens in court, there won’t be any winners in this situation.

In the end, both Brady’s legacy and the NFL’s image will be tarnished.

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH

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