For an entity that does so much so well, transforming its brand into a 24/7, year-round fixture, the NFL can be incredibly ham-handed at times.
The league botched the concussion issue for years. When it hasn’t overreached in player discipline cases, it has under-reacted. Commissioner Roger Goodell has gone on an ill-conceived crusade to make his league a leading social arbiter.
There are plenty of openings to criticize the NFL, partly because enterprises with $9 billion in annual revenue are easy targets. But the league also brings a lot of heat on itself, whether the issue is player safety, domestic abuse, stadium extortion or oversaturation.
Now we have a new piñata that deserves to be whacked as hard and often as possible: the NFL’s four-game suspension of Tom Brady, along with the New Patriots’ $1 million fine and forfeiture of a two draft picks, including a first-rounder.
It’s bad enough that “Deflategate” was deemed worthy of a four-month special investigation that produced a 243-page report.
But Brady should be suspended for four games because he likes his footballs a little softer than standard? Ridiculous. His Hall of Fame legacy is somehow tarnished because his footballs had a less air in them? Insane.
The fact that we’re still discussing the AFC Championship Game is ludicrous. The New England Patriots whipped the Indianapolis Colts, 45-7, and Brady’s slightly underinflated footballs didn’t have a thing to do with the outcome. The league’s “integrity” didn’t suffer any damage either.
Customization is standard operating procedure in the NFL. Peyton Manning, with assistance from Brady, led the charge and successfully lobbied for the 2006 rule change that allowed teams to provide their own footballs on offense. Each quarterback has his own personal preferences and equipment staffers who aim to accommodate.
The New York Giants put Eli Manning’s footballs through a detailed preparation process that takes several months. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Brad Johnson says he paid someone to scuff each of the 100 footballs to be used in Super Bowl 37. Green Bay Packers QB Aaron Rodgers not only wants his football inflated to the maximum level, he wants no limits on inflation (current rules call 12-1/2 to 13-1/2 pounds per square inch).
Balls that aren’t out-the-box waxy are easier to throw. Balls that aren’t wet are easier to throw. Balls that are scuffed are easier to throw.
A glove on his passing hand makes throws easier for Manning. A little less air makes throws easier for Brady. A little more air makes throws easier for Rodgers. There’s a reason the NFL doesn’t mandate the same ball for both teams; it wants to make throws easier for everyone.
The only thing hard about any of that is understanding the NFL’s motivation to view this as a capital offense.
Past history probably plays a role. Deflategate likely wouldn’t be an issue if it involved any other team. But the Patriots were embroiled in “Spygate” eight years ago, and two gate-scandals is one too many.
The notion that New England cheats has persisted since it was caught taping the New York Jets’ defensive signals in 2007. Though the Patriots were fined $750,000 and docked a first-round draft pick, some observers criticized Goodell because he destroyed the tapes, potentially covering up the extent of New England’s spying.
Another factor is the rulebook. There’s nothing ambiguous about the procedure for handling game balls: “Once the balls have left the locker room, no one, including players, equipment managers, ball boys, and coaches, is allowed to alter the footballs in any way. If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000.”
It seems fairly clear – more probably than not, as the NFL put it – that Brady lied about his knowledge of the underinflated balls and was in cahoots with two equipment guys to make sure his footballs were as he likes them.
So reprimand him. Fine him. If absolutely necessary to make a point – because we know the league is all about its image – then add a little discipline as well, maybe a one- or two-game suspension at most.
But don’t act as if this is some gross breach of the rules.
Now that the NFL finally put this issue to bed, it should ask itself why air pressure is regulated at all. If quarterbacks are given the ability to prepare and use their own footballs, let them be as soft or hard as the QB wants. There’s no unfair advantage if each passer can use whatever suits him best.
The NFL changed the rules in 2006 because it wanted quarterbacks to be comfortable and throw for lots of yards and TDs. Brady has done that as well as anyone.
A little gamesmanship doesn’t change that fact.
And a 243-page report and heavy-handed penalties only proves how exceedingly awful the NFL can be at handling the pressure of its perch.