We need to take stock of what happened today in the NFL. Tom Brady getting suspended four games for his role in the Deflation Crisis* is something of a surprise, but only because he is the league’s “movie star” player. The vibe has been that there was simply no way that Brady would get punished for what has largely been deemed a petty crime, at best.
But hold on–let’s look a little closer at what has gone on here, and why the punishment, in this case, may very well have (surprisingly) fit the crime.
At first blush, that doesn’t seem to be a widely held position; reaction to the suspension has ranged from somewhat measured headlines such as ESPN.com’s “Was Patriots’ penalty too harsh?” all the way to literal wailing on talk radio today. But if you take a more expansive view, you realize that there are plenty of good reasons for Brady to get this seemingly harsh penalty.
Consider this: there seems to be no argument that several of the footballs used in the AFC Championship Game were under-inflated, enough to form a firm judgment that it was purposely done. Somebody had to do it, and somebody had to be responsible for the act occurring. The quarterback handles the ball on every one of his team’s offensive plays; he will know better than anyone whether the ball is properly inflated or not–and certainly he will have his preference on that matter, as surely as a pitcher in MLB prefers a ball with higher or lower stitches, or an NBA player likes a ball with more or less grip/texture. Given those facts, it certainly is logical to conclude that Brady had to know what was going on–and it strains credulity that some lowly team employee would take it upon himself to alter game balls without the star quarterback’s consent.
Based on that conclusion, the rather cogent bit of analysis going around–that the punishment is as much a product of Brady’s lack of cooperation with the investigation as it is a direct sentence for those game-related actions–makes a lot of sense. We’ve all heard it before: it’s not the original crime, it’s the cover-up that gets you in the deepest trouble. The investigation’s findings argue that Brady was not forthcoming because he had something to hide, the something being his involvement with deflating the balls.
That may not stand as proof beyond a reasonable doubt–and there’s a lot of chatter to that effect, citing the Wells report as highly speculative–but process did not play out in a court of law (though it may eventually get there; things could get really ugly here); this process was simply one business’ internal management action. Thus, the standard of proof is much lower than in an actual court. A solid suspicion, not beyond a reasonable doubt, was needed to “convict” in this case.
And that solid suspicion must be larger in scale than most observers are seeing. A lot of the argument against Brady getting this punishment says that the Patriots did not win the AFC Conference Championship because of under-inflated footballs; many have pointed out that Brady’s statistics were better after the suspect balls were taken out of play in that game. Why be so harsh for just half a game’s worth of suspicious acts?
But that thinking ignores some obvious points. How did anyone come to suspect that the balls were tampered with? If memory serves me right, the original impetus for the investigation came from a complaint by the Colts. But the balls the Patriots offense were using were rarely handled by any Colts players. How did they–and, presumably, not the game officials who were marking the ball for play–know something was up with those footballs? Were Colts defenders so attuned that just a couple of handles of the balls were enough to raise red flags? Did someone on the Colts have a psychic moment and read Tom Brady’s mind? Was it all that obvious?
Or, as seems more likely, did the Colts go into that game expecting something might be fishy–because the thought had already been going around the league? I won’t be surprised if, in the coming weeks, we learn that the Patriots were under suspicion for this kind of chicanery long before that Sunday in January. Indeed, it strains credulity again to assume that the Patriots (including Brady) took this action in that one and only game, and never resorted to this kind of thing before that championship game. The suspicion must be that these misdemeanors must be the tail end of a history of false actions; and who knows what game results were changed by the Patriots’ skullduggery before the game against the Colts? If New England cheated to try to beat Indianapolis, how many teams did they defeat before that game by the same methods? Presumably, the reason they tried to manipulate the balls was because they had a reasonable idea that doing so would give them an advantage–probably because they had successfully done it before.
And this brings us to what lies at the heart of the suspension: concern for the integrity of the game. No less a figure than Bill Polian (on PTI) expressed the opinion that this was a much more serious matter than most commentators were saying; one assumes that Polian was hardly surprised by today’s suspension. Nor should he be, and the rest of us should follow suit–because if there’s a player out there who’s manipulating the game in order to win games, divisions, championships, Super Bowls, that player is damaging the integrity of the game.
You must understand: “the integrity of the game” does not refer to how everyone feels about the games they’re watching; the words refer to whether or not the fans watching the game are convinced that what they are seeing is a fair competition being contested on a level playing field. Because if it’s not, those fans are going to decide not to be taken in, not to be treated as rubes, and–most significantly–not to spend their time and MONEY on something they deem to be a fraud. The stakes here are enormous; and remember, for all its power and position of supremacy, the NFL faces serious challenges to its present and future. If a widespread belief that the game is rigged grows across the landscape…well, the headaches Roger Goodell and the owners will wind up feeling will have little to do with helmet-to-helmet hits and concussions.
Given all of this, it makes sense that Goodell acted as he did and suspended Tom Brady, even on his apparently flimsy evidence. What will be really interesting will be seeing if Brady, Robert Kraft, and the Patriots decide that remedies outside the League–read: lawsuits–will be in order. They won’t lose their Super Bowl victory; if they swallow hard, pay their fines, and just walk away with that, the damage may end their. But if outrage and a major hissy fit is in order, the damage to the NFL may ultimately be catastrophic in the long term.
And you thought this was all about “just a few under-inflated footballs.”
*I’m sticking to my label for this incident, Deflation Crisis, because I loathe when media commentators reflexively slap “-gate” onto any scandal-related word as a suffix to coin a name for the tempest du jour. Such a coinage indicates intellectual laziness, at best, and most likely blind stupidity at worst.