One day, the NFL might actually get one of these right.
The New England Patriots and Tom Brady aren't the only ones who have completely messed the proverbial bed when it comes to Deflategate. No, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and the NFL offices have continued their spate of rash investigations and overly punitive penalties by laying the hammer down once again in a situation where the full brunt of their law was never needed.
The allegations, investigated by the recently released Wells Report (warning: report contains profanity), say that the Patriots purposefully and knowingly deflated game footballs below the minimum allowable ball-pressure limit. This, the argument goes, would allow Brady to grip the football better, receivers to catch the football more easily and also reduce the rate of fumbles.
The Wells Report found it "more probable than not" that Patriots personnel deliberately tampered with the footballs in question. If that sounds like a less-than-impressive standard of guilt to you, you would be correct. But it's also immeasurably more than the NFL actually needed to apply punishment.
The dots all connected.
When I say "the dots," that also includes the dots that connect this Patriots scandal to a history of toeing the line and occasionally stepping over it. It also includes the people in the Patriots organization who lied about these infractions and purposefully obstructed the NFL and Wells' investigation.
Here are the Patriots penalties, as first reported by ESPN's Adam Schefter:
Filed to ESPN: Tom Brady suspended four games, Pats lose 1st round pick in 2016 and a 4th in 2017, and team fined $1 million, per source:— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 11, 2015
How can the NFL still get things so wrong?
How is this still a thing?
The biggest reason is that the NFL continues to operate on the general principle of doing what looks right rather than simply trying to divine what actually is right. This is optics—public relations maneuvering from a commissioner who is a public relations man at heart.
Goodell's expertise is not in law or in investigations. He worked his way up the NFL ladder in PR, and that's what he's still doing today. It is discipline not in response to some grand moral code but rather by the consent of the preceding outcry of the public.
It is discipline far more concerned with placating the masses rather than punishing any behavior.
It is this kind of discipline that says former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his wife is only worth a couple of games, but the the same action accompanied with a video and public outcry is worth virtual banishment. It's this kind of discipline that says Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson beating his son is worth a handful of games, but doing so and angering sponsors is worthy of getting the full weight of the NFL "book" thrown at you.
Goodell stylizes himself as a Caesar with this brand of punishment, waiting for the cheers or jeers of the vox populi before giving his omnipotent thumbs up or down to the modern-day gladiators he oversees.
Only he's not Caesar, is he?
He's not even close.
The thing with having such a laughably low standard of guilt is that the NFL tends to get egg on its face when any of their rulings or decisions get challenged. Goodell and the NFL have lost, time and again, every time they've gone into court against players. And all signs point toward not only an appeal by Brady, but also by owner Robert Kraft and the Patriots.
They're almost certainly going to lose any appeals they face because of Deflategate as well. Sports Illustrated's Greg A. Bedard has some of the details:
The entire incident began when the Colts intercepted a ball in the first half of the AFC championship game and found it to have low pressure. After the Colts informed the league, all 11 of the Patriots’ balls were inspected and found to be below the allowable level.
Patriots sources are steadfast—and their belief was conveyed to the league, according to a source—that Mike Kensil, the NFL’s VP of game operations, walked up to Patriots equipment manager Dave Schoenfeld on the sideline after halftime and said, “We weighed the balls. You are in big f-----g trouble.” New England and Kraft thought this incident, and others, showed bias by the league and would be explored in the Wells report. But the Patriots’ theories (including another in which they believed the Colts deflated the intercepted ball) were tossed aside, with the report simply calling the sideline interaction a difference in recollection.
Basically, this isn't the Patriots claiming their innocence but rather lodging a procedural complaint. The Wells Report was an independent investigation commissioned by the league, and the Patriots are right to insinuate in an appeals process that the league essentially got what it paid for.
Brady's agent, Don Yee, has made a fool of himself and his client at various points in this process, but he made a good point in the initial statement he released following the Wells Report. Yee called out the report as biased in burying important notes in the footnotes and said that the investigators lacked even general football knowledge.
Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston further poked holes in the report due to factors like sample size and the unevenness of the report's criticisms. He also used his own personal knowledge—including a vastly superior understanding of the standard operating procedures around Brady and the Patriots organization—to contradict the report's conclusion that Brady provided autographs as a payment in kind to equipment managers.
"Thus, I rejected the Wells report framing Brady's autographs/memorabilia as anything outside of normal procedure, and it made me question whether the investigators understood the workplace they were investigating," Reiss wrote.
The NFL spent months and months on this report and leveled an intense amount of punishment on flimsy evidence that is currently being torn apart.
None of the above absolves the Patriots, but it shows that the NFL was far more interested in catching them doing something rather than in uncovering whatever the truth may be. It also clearly illustrates that the NFL's punishment for the Patriots is intended as an example for the rest of league, much like in the New Orleans Saints Bountygate scandal—another instance in which Goodell and the league were overturned.
The NFL allowed the Patriots to be tried in the court of public opinion and modified their punishments accordingly.
This is PR. This is marketing. It's the NFL's brand of justice, but it hardly resembles the word as we know it.
Brady's suspension should eventually be decreased. The Patriots' lost draft pick should eventually head into the middle rounds—much like the picks the Minnesota Vikings and Atlanta Falcons lost for pumping crowd noise into stadiums—and the $1 million penalty levied against the Patriots should mostly go away, as the level of proof against the team was even lower than that against Brady.
Overall, the public sees what it wants to see in this report.
Patriots fans see a terrible miscarriage of justice because Brady can do no wrong in their eyes. Those jealous or biased against the Patriots thanks to years of arrogant success will see "more probable than not" as "proof positive."
In reality, the only thing revealed by the Wells Report and subsequent punishments is that the league still has not gotten this right, and it likely never will with Goodell in charge.