Well, this is all just nuts. The NFL has shown itself to be off-the-rails, bat-droppings crazy, and perhaps this is just all part of the show now. Come for the touchdowns, stay for the arbitrary, completely over-the-top punishments for a rule that nobody had heard about four months ago.
A not-so-independent investigation took way too much time to come to a non-conclusion about the air inside footballs, but that was enough for the NFL to come in like a panting dog with an historic penalty for what became Deflategate: The Patriots are fined $1 million, lose two draft picks, including one in the first round, and — here’s the kicker — Tom Brady is suspended for four games.
Somehow, despite the existence of common sense, there is enough hysteria or schadenfreude that many adult humans are taking this seriously and as just punishment.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell long ago passed the point where he would take some criticism no matter what, and in some ways he probably felt boxed in on this. If he didn’t come down hard on the Patriots, he would reinforce his reputation for playing favorites around the league.
But even with all of those disclaimers, this is now like a poser security guard overcompensating for past mistakes by doubling down on hard justice.
Tom Brady’s agent, Don Yee, is absolutely correct that the NFL “has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that often are overturned,” so to use the Wells Report’s language, it is more probable than not that Brady’s suspension will at least be shortened.
By now, Goodell can only have a fading memory of a time when his punishments were credible.
The investigation his league commissioned left Brady’s role in deflating footballs unclear. There was no proof that Brady did or knew about anything that violated the NFL’s rules — nothing beyond the intuition that nobody would alter the footballs without Brady knowing.
But for that, Brady is suspended twice as long as the initial punishment to Ray Rice, who knocked his then-fiancee out cold.
The Wells Report includes enough holes that Brady and his agent will fight this to an arbiter, probably with success, but why does it have to go like this? Why does it always have to go like this?
Rice’s suspension was too lenient, so it was later lengthened. Adrian Peterson’s suspension last year was reactionary and overstepped the NFL’s power, so it was later overturned.
It is hard to imagine a world in which this punishment to Brady and the Patriots will not be altered.
At this point, the NFL’s punishments are just a first draft, edited by level heads.
But what makes this all so silly and overdone is that we are talking about the inflation of footballs. This is not gambling, or performance-enhancing drugs. This is PSI, essentially the quarterback’s version of a wide receiver wearing Stickum to catch passes or a defensive end lubing up to slip by blockers.
This is what we’re worked up about?
Common sense tells us that the Patriots broke a rule. It is a small rule, more jaywalking than armed robbery, but a rule nonetheless. It could have gone a thousand sensible directions with the punishment.
Instead, the NFL just levied the stiffest penalty in league history for a rule that probably doesn’t need to exist. The league allows teams to use their own footballs in games. This was a rule put in on the urging of quarterbacks, and done so that quarterbacks would be comfortable, which by logical extension would lead to more points and more viewership.
The rule the Patriots broke is enforceable, by league bylaws, with a $25,000 fine.
That’s it: $25,000.
The NFL has gone way beyond that here, and in a sternly worded letter from a league executive to Brady about the punishment, references that the quarterback did not hand over his emails and text messages to investigators.
Basically, the league is punishing him so harshly because he looks guilty and would not give them his cell phone.
You could get out of a speeding ticket with more evidence against you.
Defending the Patriots is an uncomfortable position. This is the franchise of Spygate, and the organization has handled its side of this mess deplorably. When the news broke, Brady literally laughed it off. Team owner Robert Kraft preemptively demanded an apology if the NFL’s investigation found no wrongdoing.
So there is no joy in defending the Patriots here. But, particularly when it comes to investigations and discipline, the NFL has made itself much harder to defend.
The league throws a heck of a party, and puts on the best show in American sports. But it also has a remarkably inept track record of flubbing most everything around the games.
Normally, the NFL’s best strategy in crisis is to hunker down and wait for the next kickoff. In this case, the season will begin on Sept. 10, with the Patriots at home against the Steelers on primetime network television. Patriots fans have, in large numbers, become excruciatingly self-righteous and indignant throughout this process. It will be an ugly scene.
One the NFL has largely made for itself.