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Deflategate Punishment Merited but Misses the Mark

tom brady deflategate opine

It began with a tweet. In the early morning hours of January 19, as much of America slept after the New England Patriots’ 45–7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship game, Indianapolis sportswriter Bob Kravitz broke the news that the NFL was investigating the possibility that New England had intentionally deflated footballs, in violation of league rules. 

So commenced a months-long circus that involved Patriots quarterback Tom Brady seeming to pretend that he didn’t know what a football was and coach Bill Belichick attempting to act like he had a PhD in air-pressure sciences. 

The drama finally came to an end Monday when the NFL severely punished Brady and the Pats’ organization on the heels of the release of a much-anticipated league-commissioned report into the matter.

For their roles in the so-called Deflategate scandal, Brady will be suspended for New England’s first four regular-season games this fall, and the Patriots will be fined $1 million and forfeit their first-round pick in the 2016 draft and fourth-round choice in the 2017 draft. 

The report prepared for the NFL by attorney Ted Wells and released last week concluded that it is “more probable than not that Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities” of Pats lower-level employees James McNally and John Jastremski “involving the release of air from Patriots game balls.” 

Many — especially (and unsurprisingly) those from the Boston metro area — latched onto the use of the word “probable” as a reason to cast doubt on the report’s findings and question the severity of Brady’s punishment. 

The NFL, however, doesn’t need incontrovertible evidence to suspend a player. Under league rules adopted years ago, a player can be disciplined as long as the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not, a standard often applied in civil lawsuits. 

And the evidence was certainly against the Pats’ quarterback, pointing not just to the fact that he had a role in the actual deflations but also to his involvement in a potential cover-up. According to the report, “Evidence of Brady’s awareness appears in text communications between McNally and Jastremski.” 

In the three days following the AFC championship game, Brady spoke on the phone six times with Jastremski, even though the two had not called or texted each other in the previous six months. 

Brady refused to give his phone records to NFL investigators (much of the evidence against him came from Jastremski’s phone, which was property of the Patriots), and when asked at a January press conference whether he was a cheater, Brady gave an odd response: “I don’t believe so.” There seems to be little doubt that Brady was involved in the ball deflation scheme. 

However, the report did not implicate Belichick, who in January had tried to defend Brady with an explanation for how the balls could have lost air pressure based on natural conditions — only to be contradicted later in the day by Bill Nye the Science Guy. Nor did the report implicate any other members of the New England coaching staff or administration. 

So plenty of eyebrows were raised over the harsh penalties the Pats’ organization received. But as NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent wrote in his letter to the Patriots, “It remains a fundamental principle that the club is responsible for the actions of club employees.” 

He’s absolutely correct. Accountability needs to be fostered, and if high-level team officials knew their teams could get away with things like this, then mightn’t they turn a blind eye if rule-breaking was going on below them?

In my opinion, the penalties doled out were unquestionably fair and deserved. While many have argued that the punishments don’t fit the crime, they’re missing the point, which is to uphold the integrity of the game and teach that cheating of any kind is wrong. 

What would kids think if they saw that the best way to win a Super Bowl was to break the rules? Only a little air was let out of a bunch of footballs on that January night in Foxboro, but the NFL’s credibility was flowing out much faster. By imposing the penalties, the NFL plugged the leak, at least for the time being. 

But perhaps a different punishment would have been more appropriate. Is it just me, or is there something wrong with the fact that the Patriots will be penalized in the 2015, 2016, and 2017 seasons for a violation that occurred in the 2014 campaign? Shouldn’t the punishment be more closely related to the crime? 

I believe that the NFL needs to take away the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX title rather than impose the current penalties. An asterisk will always be attached to New England’s most recent championship season. If Brady is suspended for a quarter of next season, that next campaign will be compromised, too. 

The forfeiture of draft picks will further extend the fallout from the scandal. Why contaminate future seasons with the debris of Deflategate? Why not just put the whole thing to rest once and for all?

The NFL did its job in showing that it will not tolerate cheating, no matter how supposedly “small” the offense may be. But the punishments the league levied still missed the mark. 

Photo: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated