Tom Brady beat the NFL in court, but Deflate-Gate took at least a temporary toll on his image.
A poll finds that 34 percent of the public has an unfavorable opinion of the Super Bowl MVP, who will lead the New England Patriots into their season opener on Thursday night. That compares with just 21 percent who view Brady favorably.
It's a reversal from when Public Policy Polling asked the same question in December 2013, before anyone was talking about air pressure and the Ideal Gas Law. Back then, Brady was at 39 percent favorable and 23 percent unfavorable.
The new poll was taken Aug. 28-30 — before a federal judge invalidated Commissioner Roger Goodell's four-game suspension of Brady, finding "significant legal deficiencies" with the punishment.
But Tom Jensen, the director of PPP, which provided the poll results to NBC News, said he doubts the numbers have improved, even with the court victory.
"I think if anything Brady's win in court might just make the public even madder at him," he said in an email. "When the public believes that someone cheated and they get away with it unscathed, that just increases resentment toward that person."
He said the only other pro athletes he could recall with a similarly dramatic decline in their poll numbers were LeBron James, after his team-changing television spectacle "The Decision," and Brett Favre, after a sexting scandal.
Deflate-Gate, in which the NFL concluded that Brady colluded with team employees to have air let out of footballs before the AFC championship game, "reinforces a wider perception over the last decade that the Patriots kind of just play by their own rules," Jensen said.
That perception may have been enhanced by an ESPN report, published Tuesday, that the Patriots videotaped opposing teams' signals for seven years, stole playsheets, rummaged through the hotel rooms of opposing teams and engaged in other chicanery.
A team spokeswoman told ESPN it was disappointing that some people believe in "myths, conjecture and rumors" rather than ascribing the Patriots' extraordinary success to sound coaching, hard work and athletic performance.
The judge in the Deflate-Gate case, Richard Berman of Manhattan federal court, tossed the four-game suspension after finding that Goodell inappropriately dispensed "his own brand of industrial justice."
Before the ruling, though, a plurality of the public agreed with the punishment: 43 percent said it was fair, compared with 23 percent who said it was unfair, according to that same PPP poll. The poll sampled 1,254 registered voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percentage points.
Brady, who makes an estimated $7 million a year in endorsements, never lost a sponsorship during the scandal. He has deals with Under Armour, Ugg boots and the watchmaker Movado, among others.
And any hit to his image will be temporary, said David Srere, the co-CEO and chief strategy officer for Siegel+Gale, a New York brand strategy firm.
Among the reasons, he said, are the relative triviality of the alleged offense — "If Tom Brady had gone out and held up a bank, that's one thing" — and the reserved, professional way Brady conducts himself in public.
And one other thing: All that winning.
When the Patriots take the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night, Brady will begin his quest for a fifth Super Bowl ring, a feat never before achieved by a quarterback.
He is a three-time Super Bowl MVP, a surefire Hall of Famer, and the most public face of one of the most successful dynasties in the history of American sports.
If anyone comes out with a severely tarnished brand, Srere said, it's Goodell — widely perceived as bungling his handling of not just Deflate-Gate but a series of domestic and child abuse cases.
"The irony of this is that Brady's brand lifts the NFL brand," said Srere, who stressed that he is not a Patriots fan.
"Winning is what counts in that particular business, and you build up equity," he said of Brady. "Given the fact that now that the court has reversed the suspension, he comes out even stronger."