The verdict is in: Tom Brady will sit for four games (pending appeal). The New England Patriots will lose a million dollars and, much more consequentially, a first round draft choice in 2016 and a fourth round pick in 2017, because members of their organization deflated footballs, more likely than not at the behest of their quarterback. Is that too harsh a suspension? Too lenient?
I have no idea. The closest we can come to any kind of coherence in discussing these suspensions is to look at precedent: How has the league dealt in the past with integrity-of-play violations? But that doesn’t get us very far, because the NFL’s punishments for personal conduct and integrity of the game transgressions follow no clear standard. It’s fair to say that virtually no one knew what the legal range for the weight of a football was prior to this controversy (or even that there was one). And players themselves – both current and retired – don’t seem to agree about what kind of advantage is conferred when one quarterback is playing with a ball outside the legal range and the other isn’t (assuming that’s the case).
So, we’re left debating the sports equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
One line of argument that has been forwarded that I don’t find all that helpful is the one that compares this suspension to the initial Ray Rice suspension, or to other suspensions for off-the-field conduct. Mike Greenberg addressed this issue well last week. He pointed out what should be obvious – no one is arguing that, in the grand scheme of things, deflating a football, or gambling on your own team to win baseball games (a violation of the rules that has resulted in the permanent banishment of one of the games all time greats), is remotely as serious a breach of basic decency or consequence to the world as assaulting a woman, for example. These are entirely separate issues.
Indeed, one could argue that the NFL and Roger Goodell opened up a can of worms when the commissioner decided to make “personal conduct” a signature feature of his tenure (and almost all sports media cheered him on in 2007-8 when he first started issuing lengthy suspensions for off-the-field misconduct, almost all targeted at black players). The league is in over its head because, despite being a big, incredibly successful and high profile business, it has no particular claim on awareness, sensitivity, or larger social insight consistent with its claims to be a moral arbiter that America should look up to. As I wrote when the Rice fiasco unfolded late last summer, I think it’s more likely than not (get it?) that the commissioner thought he was handing down a harsh punishment by suspending Rice for two games – relative to previous efforts to sanction domestic violence as part of the personal conduct policy. But the culture had been shifting under his feet, leaving Goodell flat-footed and then prevaricating about what he knew and when he knew it.
I still don’t have a firm idea of how, if at all, leagues should punish players for what they do when they’re not in uniform, particularly as the imposition of fines and suspensions for off-the-field behavior appears to be just one more branding exercise. But there is no question that leagues need to police rules concerning conduct-of-play. The NFL may have been wrong to have suspended Brady for four games, given whatever precedents it has or hasn’t set relative to on-field violations.
It is not, however, making any kind of moral statement about whether messing with game balls is worse in any larger sense than players committing vicious acts of violence against other human beings when they’re outside the lines.
In this sense, anyway, we should give the commissioner a break.