There’s almost no way to rationalize it, which is kind of the point, I suppose. Rational thought isn’t really a tenet of the NFL’s punishment policies. But irrational as it might be, Tom Brady won’t be playing the first four games of the 2015 season for having knowledge of what has come to be known as Deflategate. His involvement seems to slide anywhere from a vague knowledge to complete culpability.
Now, let me first say that I think Brady had a very good understanding of what some of his equipment managers were doing to the footballs he tosses better than almost anyone in the history of the game. No member of the staff would dare mess with Brady’s tools without at least a wink and a nod that Old Tom likes the leather a certain way. He knew what was going on and the investigation bore that out.
But I also think it’s very difficult to cast Brady as the lone villain. He’s the only one receiving a suspension for a “crime” that benefited more individuals than just himself. Every receiver who caught a pass was able to get a better handle on a more forgiving football. Every running back was able to maintain control a little better without as much chance of fumbling. (There is some great research showing how the Patriots have been so ridiculously good at not fumbling the ball in recent years, it would be an almost impossible anomaly without some consistent advantage in place.)
But Commissioner Roger Goodell has decided that Brady will be the only one to miss time. And not necessarily because of his actions, but because of his inaction. The league’s statement emphasizes his unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation as its most compelling piece of evidence.
I’ll admit that Goodell was in a bit of a no-win situation with this case because leaning too far in either direction would have negative repercussions. If he simply looked the other way, people would say that the Patriots continue to act above the law and that the league wouldn’t suspend a player of Brady’s stature. But this four-game suspension immediately brings back the Ray Rice mess and gives us all the chance to say that mildly deflating footballs, or not talking about it candidly, is a worse crime than admitted domestic violence.
So we’re back to this notion of irrational punishment. It’s become a stigma the league has earned with some dubious decisions over the past few seasons. From Sean Payton to Richie Incognito to Rice to Josh Gordon to Brady. The theme is pretty much – well, there is no theme, really. Like a petulant child, Goodell and the league seem to go by however they feel that day. If they’ve had a good nap, you’re probably alright. If you spilled their juice box, you’re going to be missing plenty of paychecks.
I was talking with people about this over the weekend and I said the league would probably issue some nonsense penalty to Brady, maybe two preseason games. They definitely surprised me with this decree and it sends a key message to the rest of the league: nobody is too fast to outrun the fractious arm of Roger Goodell.
Though the ratings continue to climb, the NFL seems to be morphing into a less predictable version of professional wrestling, with many of the same long-term dangers to its players. Goodell is beginning to do a pretty good Vince McMahon impersonation, except he’s not playing a character. It sounds crazy, but it’s fair to to say the WWE puts (a lot) more thought into its story lines than the NFL puts into its suspension policies.
In the context of a consistent system, this wouldn’t even be a discussion. Whether Brady should be suspended or not is only a debate because nobody has any idea anymore what the league will do in any such circumstances.
But also, Patriots: just quit cheating already. Alright?
David Simon can be reached at email@example.com.