Schadenfreude is in the air. It smells like roasted Patriot.
Not long after Ted Wells released his a 243-page report detailing his opinion that quarterback Tom Brady probably knew his footballs were being purposefully deflated, the hammer fell. Retribution is swift and merciless when the almighty Shield is challenged.
The NFL announced massive penalties for the Patriots—a record $1 million fine, a 2016 first-round pick, a 2017 fourth-round pick, and a four-game suspension for the golden boy. New England fans were naturally shell-shocked and angry, aghast at the heavy-handed punishment in the wake of seemingly weak allegations and flimsy evidence. Patriots haters, meanwhile, basked in the glory of sweet vindication.
Deep down, Patriots fans had to know this was coming. After all, the ghosts of Spygate still roamed Foxboro, haunting fans with glee every playoff failure for head coach Bill Belichick. New England had been down this road before.
The Hoodie caught a $500,000 personal fine for his role in the team’s illegal videotaping activities back in 2007. The Patriots were fined an additional $250,000, and they were docked a first-round pick to boot.
Worse, it tainted the team’s undeniable success. The Patriots couldn’t win the big one without cheating, or so the narrative dictated. Forget the fact they went undefeated that season before losing a shocker to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLII. Never mind the fact they made the postseason in all but one year—the last time Brady missed significant time, a 2008 season when Matt Cassel piloted the team to a 11-5 record that was somehow not good enough for the playoffs—since the sordid affair.
Making it to the Super Bowl is hard enough for most teams. The Patriots have been there three times since the ordeal, but they couldn’t shake Spygate.
One Super Bowl victory should have wiped that narrative clean. The Empire finally struck back, beating the vaunted Seattle Seahawks in thrilling fashion. We should still be talking about that game. Instead, we are here, sitting in the aftermath of another brutal edict from King Roger and his minions, with fiery rebukes cast down from ivory towers, scores of takes burning all around, and angry fan denials in the face of laughter.
Really, though, nobody should be surprised.
Not after the fallout after Spygate. Not after the New Orleans Saints were eviscerated after the bounty scandal.
When head coach Sean Payton’s team put a dent in the Shield after being accused of collecting bounties for big hits on opposing players, the punishment was just as shocking back then. The Saints were fined $500,000 and docked two second-round picks. Payton was banished for a year. Gregg Williams, the defensive coordinator reportedly at the heart of it all, was banned indefinitely.
Several players garnered lengthy suspensions, too, though they were ultimately vacated after multiple appeals.
An honest reading of the Ted Wells report on the allegations someone doctored game balls for quarterback Brady and the Patriots leaves plenty to the imagination. But it gives us a mountain of circumstantial evidence—and, yes, it counts as evidence—that paints a damning picture.
How else are we to explain some of the text messages that flew between New England’s scapegoats—equipment man John Jastremski and the self-styled “deflator,” James McNally, who sounds like a mid-level gangster out of The Departed? Why would Brady suddenly be interested in speaking with Jastremski after six months of zero contact?
New England’s overwrought rebuttal makes a valiant effort to answer these questions and discredit the Wells report, but it left many wondering how anyone would believe “The Deflator” was a nickname tied to weight loss more than anything. The massive counterstrike was anything but convincing.
There probably isn’t proof beyond a reasonable doubt that proves anyone guilty of anything, but the burden of proof is substantially different here. We aren’t in criminal or even civil court—the NFL can rule on the information it has and the implications therein.
Maybe there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for it all. There is dot-connecting and dubious science, to be sure, but Occam’s razor seems to apply here—someone got caught pulling shenanigans with footballs to gain some sort of competitive advantage. Perhaps it was intended to fly within the restricted air space that is the NFL rulebook. But we all know the way good intentions paves.
Whatever the case may be, the entire affair is decidedly ridiculous. Does deflating balls actually give New England a tangible advantage? That’s debatable. Did it help the Patriots thump the Indianapolis Colts by 38 points in the AFC Championship game? No. Could this all have been avoided with a simple admission and apology? Probably.
The nature of the offense wasn’t relevant, though—it was the active attempt to circumvent the rules to gain an edge that mattered. It’s why Belichick was levied the biggest fine to an individual in NFL history in 2007.
Even then, the damage would have been mitigated with a mea culpa, or at least an honest attempt to investigate the issue. So why did the NFL borrow Mjölnir to leave Patriots fans thunderstruck?
It’s simple—the Patriots doubled down and thumbed their noses at the league. Worse, they did it knowing what happened eight years ago.
Bob Kraft might have a cozy relationship with commissioner Roger Goodell, but that mattered little when the Patriots owner stood there and demanded an apology from the league in the wake of the accusations. Brady’s infamous and oft-parodied press conference maintaining his plausible deniability and adherence to the rules was no laughing matter to the commissioner’s office.
In the wake of the investigation, Wells revealed New England’s unwillingness to cooperate, from refusal to connect investigators with McNally to Brady’s disinclination to turn over texts from his phone.
Orwellian as this may all be, Brady and the Patriots did themselves no favors by obfuscating and practically daring the NFL to do something.
It was easy to compare this heavy-handed punishment to the light sentences doled out for domestic abusers. A common refrain compared the litany of penalties to the two-game suspension Ray Rice received after punching his then-fiancé, a sentence that would ultimately be extended indefinitely once video of the incident was released.
Even compared to the likes of Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy—who was recently handed a 10-game suspension for his alleged domestic assault despite the fact he sat out the entire 2014 season—New England’s plight seems rather excessive. Brady’s folly has all but buried the fact Seattle’s cursory due diligence on Michigan product Frank Clark, whose domestic violence incident gets uglier the more we find out.
Real skullduggery should trump slightly deflated footballs, right?
There is only one problem—the NFL is a moneymaking machine, not a moral institution. So New England’s perceived assault on the integrity of the league became paramount over affronts to humanity and common decency we have seen from individuals.
The Patriots took aim at the Shield instead of women and children.
If we are being honest with ourselves, the league only became concerned with domestic violence when it became a public relations nightmare that could affect the bottom line. It’s no more a moral issue to the suits in New York than whether a player legally smokes weed or an equipment manager takes a needle to a football on purpose.
So we are here, debating the merits of deflated footballs, texts between equipment handlers, and an arbitrary, overreaching punishment that angered some and delighted others.
At least the NFL is in the news again.
The 2015 season might be a circus, but all good shows must come to an end. The hullaballoo will die down, and the Patriots will still be four-time champions with a Hall of Fame quarterback at the helm. All the bluster and bombast won’t change history, even if it has become tainted for some.