Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Nobody Wins in the NFL's Handling of "DeflateGate"

By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

By now you've probably heard that the NFL absolutely hammered the New England Patriots and star quarterback Tom Brady for the alleged intentional deflating of game footballs during last January's AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.

For Brady and the Patriots' role in "DeflateGate" (or, as I prefer to call it, Ballghazi), the quarterback was suspended four games and the organization was docked both a 1st and 4th round draft pick, along with a $1 million fine.

That is insane.

First of all, let me tell you my thought process way back in January, long before the Wells Report's 243 pages of text message conversations between low-level Patriots staffers and assertions of things that were "more probable than not."

When the story first broke I, like most non-Patriots fans, thought, "yeah, the probably did that on purpose."

But that was based on absolutely nothing, except the Patriots' reputation for pushing the envelope with regards to the rules. And, even back then, I figured the punishment should fit the crime. This wasn't a massive steroid ring or a point shaving scandal. This was a minor equipment violation, on par with receivers putting stickum on their gloves to catch the ball better, or defensive players rubbing their jerseys with Vaseline so that blockers would slip off them.

Sure, they were all technically illegal, and if the league caught a player or team doing it, there should be a punishment. But, again, the punishment should fit the crime.

When the whole deflated ball scandal broke, I figured the Pats would get hit with a $100,000 fine and, worst case scenario, a late round draft pick. Even that seemed a bit too harsh, but you got the feeling the league was going to try and send a message.

Fast forward four months and we still don't know much more about the whole situation. We're still "pretty sure" the Patriots cheated, but that is hardly the burden of proof you would want if the NFL were coming after your favorite team. I understand that this isn't the judicial system, but surely we don't want every team/player to be blasted with fines and suspensions when they "probably" did something, do we?

Therein lie the two biggest problems with the NFL's handling of this:

1. We still don't know for sure that the Patriots or Tom Brady knowingly and systematically deflated those footballs.

As a fan I can say "of course they did, they're the Patriots," but the league should be held to a slightly higher standard than that. And,

2. Even if it was proven, these penalties are waaaaayyy too harsh for a minor equipment violation.

Consider that Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell was also suspended four games, but that was due to an arrest for driving under the influence of marijuana, while Ray Rice's initial suspension for hitting his then-fiancee, now wife, was just two games.

For a team as valuable as the Patriots, I'm not overly concerned about the $1 million fine (though it is the largest in league history), but draft picks are kind of important, and the Pats are losing a highly coveted first rounder and one in the fourth round as well. Remember that the Falcons are only losing a 5th round pick for pumping in artificial crowd noise to enhance their home field advantage, and that the Saints only lost a 2nd and 3rd rounder for a systematic bounty system designed to pay defensive players to injure opposing offensive players.

The only other time the NFL has stripped a first round pick in the last 44 years was when it took one from the Patriots in 2008 for "SpyGate," and offenses related to salary cap manipulation perpetrated by the Steelers and 49ers led to only the losses of 3rd and 5th round picks.

According to precedents set by the NFL itself, to deserve the entire punishment placed upon Brady and his team, the quarterback would have to be arrested for driving under the influence (or two cases of domestic assault), while his team illegally taped another team's signals and paid players under the table to get around the salary cap.

Or, you know, not inflate some footballs to the league's specifications.

I know the NFL wanted to send a message, I know the Patriots didn't cooperate, and were probably incredibly smug about it, and I know they have a history of playing fast and loose with the rules, but this is just ridiculous. The suspension will probably be reduced to two games, and the team can afford the fine, but those two draft picks are a massive punishment for a minor infraction.

And the worst part is, Patriots fans get to complain about it all, and they aren't crazy! Usually when New England fans talk about "Patriot haters" and all that, they're just being narcissistic, but in this case it's absolutely true. Roger Goodell and others in the league office had some reason to bring the hammer down on New England other than the evidence and violations at hand, and that's a scary proposition for all the league's owners, and more importantly, fans.

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