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It’s a new year, but Roger Goodell’s job isn’t getting any easier.
Only this time the controversy is a bit ridiculous — and impossible to write about without creating a series of double entendres. Eleven of the 12 game balls the Patriots provided for the AFC title game were found to be under-inflated. Now the NFL is investigating the story of our modern era: What did the Patriots know about the deflated balls and when did they know it? It’s Watergate meets deflating, it’s Deflategate! (Every controversy gets a -gate added to it now. You can fight this reality or just accept it. The number of Americans today who know that Watergate is a fancy hotel is minimal. I lived right by the Watergate in college. My favorite Watergate story that doesn’t involve the break-in? Monica Lewinsky lived there, and that’s where the famous blue-stained dress hung in the closet. Staingate!)
Speaking at his press conference Thursday morning, Bill Belichick said he knew nothing about what happened to the game balls. Given that most successful NFL head coaches are dictators obsessed with every detail — Ken Whisenhunt eliminated free smoothies for media at this year’s Titans training camp, and he’s not even a successful NFL head coach — that seems unlikely. But even if you take Belichick at his word, Goodell already has established that for those in a position of leadership, ignorance is not a defense. (Unless, that is, you’re the leader of the entire NFL.)
So what should Goodell do?
Let’s dive into Deflategate and examine some of the primary storylines and points of discussion about this controversy.
1. The Patriots would have won no matter what the inflation rate of the footballs was.
That may well be true. But why does the impact of cheating matter when it comes to breaking the rules? Isn’t it the intent to cheat that violates the rule, not the success rate of that cheating? A good example of this is corking the bat in baseball. According to studies, corking the bat actually makes it less likely that a batter will hit home runs. But if you’re found doing it — which tons of hitters were back in the day — then you got suspended. The breaking of the rulebook was the violation, not the success rate of that cheating.
What’s more, we suspend tons of athletes for breaking rules dealing with smoking pot or using illegal drugs. These rules often have zero impact on the actual games. In fact, these are non-performance enhancing substances; they actually can hurt player performance. So we suspend players for behavior that actually detracts from their on-field performance. I’ve written before that I think drug testing athletes for non-performance-enhancing drugs is stupid and that unions should combat the testing, but it’s a rule that the sports leagues all stringently enforce. If, instead of deflating footballs, Tom Brady had inflated his lungs with weed too many times, he’d be suspended and no one would complain a bit.
Athletes who have no chance to win a gold medal are suspended all the time for taking performance-enhancing drugs. For instance, I’d still have no chance to win the Olympic sprinting trials if I took steroids. But I’d be breaking the rules and be suspended for doing so. My doping wouldn’t impact the outcome of the race to determine the fastest man in the world, but it would violate the rules of the sport. So I’d be suspended.
I’m not a rules guy — I think dumb rules are made to be broken; I’d have broken this rule if I thought it would help me and I weren’t going to be caught doing it — but if we only punished broken rules that materially impacted the outcome of a game, most of the NFL rulebook, indeed most of our sports rulebooks, probably could be tossed aside.
2. Every quarterback does it.
If true, this suggests one of two things: Either the rulebook needs to be changed because it doesn’t adequately reflect the way the game is currently being played, or with clear evidence of cheating taking place someone needs to be punished for breaking the rule to send a message that the rule matters.
The NFL implemented this rule because it believed the pressure of a football mattered. If Tom Brady and his equipment managers went through the trouble of circumventing the rule, it would mean they believed it mattered, too. Otherwise why would they do it?
So the argument that “everybody does it” isn’t particularly dispositive to me.
3. The Patriots and Bill Belichick have cheated before.
People with smart, creative minds challenge existing rules. They look for ways to gain small competitive advantages and seek to exploit them. This is the story of American business, it’s the foundation of capitalism — I can build a better mousetrap than you. Rule followers typically don’t change the world.
Belichick is a smart, creative mind, and he’s run his organization in a way that encourages challenging conventional wisdom and seeking competitive advantage wherever it can be found. But the downside of that creativity is that it sometimes runs into rules that seek to limit that creativity. What if the rules don’t make sense or are antiquated? Do you still follow them? Or do you circumvent them? Hence we have the eternal battle between those who are rule followers and those who are rule breakers. Belichick has proven himself to be a rule breaker. And society has rewarded him richly for his creative disruption on the football field. But he’s also been punished for Spygate, so he doesn’t come to the NFL arena with clean hands.
So what happens next?
Roger Goodell has to punish the Patriots. The question is how severely he does it.
Here are Goodell’s four options, as I see them, provided he can drum up enough proof:
1. Dock the Patriots draft picks and fine them.
In 2008, the Patriots lost their first-round draft pick, Belichick was fined $500,000 and the Patriots were fined $250,000 for Spygate. The actual impact of these penalties has been insubstantial. What’s more, if Goodell fines the Patriots and Belichick once more, doesn’t it send the message that if you’re a team or coach you are held to a different standard of justice than a player? The message would be clear: If a coach or owner pays a fine, then he can cheat.
Given the number of player suspensions and their financial severity, that seems pretty unequal.
2. Suspend Bill Belichick from coaching the Super Bowl.
Belichick claims he had no knowledge of the footballs being altered. Of course, Aaron Hernandez is more likely to admit guilt than Bill Belichick is. Belichick’s alibi may be true, but he’s a micro-managing leader of the Patriots. If he didn’t know the footballs were being altered, isn’t he guilty of willful negligence? In other words, if Belichick wanted to know this was happening, he could have easily found out, right? As tight of a ship as Belichick runs, do you really think if Tom Brady and some equipment managers have been inflating game balls to a certain standard for years that Belichick has no clue it’s been going on?
Plus, as noted above, this isn’t Belichick’s first offense when it comes to circumventing the league rulebook. Shouldn’t he pay more this time?
3. Suspend Tom Brady from playing in the Super Bowl.
Belichick essentially blamed Brady for cheating in his Thursday morning press conference. We know the balls were deflated and we know that no one would change the inflation rate of the footballs without the quarterback’s knowledge. So if Brady intentionally broke a rule, shouldn’t he be punished for it?
(By the way, if the Patriots trot out some low-level equipment manager and try to let him take the blame, I hope no one stands for this. I can’t see any way Brady wasn’t involved. You think some random guy making $45,000 a year is altering the footballs before the AFC title game without Brady knowing? Please. That worked for Lane Kiffin at USC; it better not work for the Patriots in the NFL.)
Sure, this would throw the Super Bowl into a tumult, but would it really be bad for the sport for Goodell to send a message that even the most famous and popular players are held to the letter of the NFL rulebook? Hell, don’t you think even more people would watch if Brady were suspended? What’s more, don’t underestimate the impact of Goodell laying down the law on a pretty-boy white quarterback. So far most of Goodell’s discipline has disproportionately impacted minorities. (Of course, the league is two-thirds black, but details like this get lost in the racial politics.) One clean-cut white guy suspending another clean-cut white guy is always a good look for the more powerful clean-cut white guy.
4. Suspend Belichick from coaching and Brady from playing in the Super Bowl.
This way you suspend a coaching leader and a top player for violating the NFL rulebook. After a year in which his leadership was ridiculed, Goodell could lay down the heavy hand of justice on Belichick and Brady, the most famous coach and player in this year’s Super Bowl.
Remember when Adam Silver walked into a New York ballroom and pimp-slapped Donald Sterling to universal applause? Roger Goodell probably lies awake at night wanting for his big moment to arrive. Nobody puts baby in the corner.
Yep, Roger needs to get his suspension groove back. This timing is almost perfect. Deflategate is just what Goodell needs to reinflate his commissioner’s standing.
He’s about to take the air out of the Patriots’ ball.
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