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The stuff of parity: NFL punishes quarterback for winning too much

Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.

Today, the NFL announced that it intends to suspend Tom Brady four games for his alleged role in the Deflategate ball-tampering scandal. The league will also fine the Patriots $1 million and strip the team of two draft picks, including their 2016 first-round pick. Remember, this firehose of justice is being unleashed in response to a few barely underinflated footballs, and it comes in the wake of an investigative report that failed to establish any clear evidence of wrongdoing by Brady. You might also recall that last summer, after Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was alleged to have knocked his then-fiancee Janay Palmer unconscious in a hotel elevator, the initial punishment was a two-game suspension.

The outlandish punishment leveled against Brady and his team isn’t just an overreaction to an inconsequential offense. It’s also an implicit admission that all along, Deflategate has been about the NFL taking one of its most successful teams down a notch, and not about the “integrity of the game.”

The league is intent to argue that Deflategate, our collective descent into sports-chatter hell, was borne from principled respect for the rules and isn’t about the ruination of a proven winner. But if you’re going to take that view, then you have to explain why a similar stink wasn’t raised, for instance, when both the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers were found to be heating their balls on the sidelines during a chilly game they played against each other last November. While almost everyone enjoys warm balls, this sort of equipment manipulation is against NFL rules, which raises the question: Why do the Vikings and Panthers have such a deep-seated disregard for fair play? Are they nihilists? They’re probably nihilists.

It’s also hard to figure—as far as integrity is concerned—why a multi-million-dollar investigation didn’t spring from the godhead of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell after the San Diego Chargers were caught applying a sticky, grip-enhancing substance to towels in 2012. Can you imagine befouling a league-approved towel in this manner? It’s almost as if the Chargers don’t even believe in society! When officials noticed the infraction, the San Diego staff tried to conceal their sticky towels, and for this the NFL fined the team $20,000, because Goodell wanted to get a real close look at the Chargers’ sticky towels.

Aside from the fine for hiding their shame, though, there wasn’t any punishment for the Chargers, nor for the Vikings and Panthers. (ESPN’s superb Patriots beat reporter, Mike Reiss, raised this in a Sunday column.) Unlike the Patriots, those teams’ infractions were not construed to threaten the fabric of our nation’s value system. Roger’s crew just told the rule-bending knuckleheads to cut it out already, you scamps! “What a bunch of dirty tricksters!” the nation agreed. Yet when the Patriots got caught deflating their balls, that was one masturbation metaphor too many. “Cheating is cheating!” the partisans cried, knowing that this particular tautology granted them sports-debate superpowers. (Try it yourself!)

What’s the difference between the Vikings/Panthers/Chargers and the Patriots? The Patriots have won a Super Bowl, and also, their name has three syllables. Now, it could be that the NFL has it out for teams with three syllables—they’re so much harder to pronounce. But I think this is more about the Super Bowls: four of them, won by New England, all recently. It isn’t a principled stand about the sanctity of the rules, nor is it even about the Patriots specifically. It’s about any single team winning a lot, which is a continued irritation for the majority of fans—not to mention the majority of the league’s owners.

That’s the real rule the Patriots have broken. For the NFL’s owners, a big selling point of the modern league is its parity. When every team has a fighting chance, the theory goes, fans are more likely to stay interested, enlarging the captive audience. That proposition is attractive to sponsors and media partners, who desire a nationwide platform with juicy demographics. (This is also why so much of the NFL’s marketing is built to promote stars—who in the free agency era could play for any city, maybe yours!—rather than standout teams, whose appeal is inherently regional.) There are billions of dollars tied up in the idea of parity, and the Patriots are defying it. They aren’t in because they tinkered with some footballs.

Rival fans’ traditional response to a dominant team would be to grit their teeth and look ahead to next year—or maybe they just stop caring. This second scenario frightens the NFL, which has become too big to shrink. People wonder how a doofus like Roger Goodell became commissioner, but there’s no mystery in it. Goodell’s lack of admirable qualities coincides tragically with a desperate need to be admired—he’s an avatar for the league’s plight.

The NFL and its quasi-subsidiaries in the media found an ingenious way to neuter the Patriots’ parity-disrupting victories: Pretend the bothersome wins aren’t “real.” It’s a perfect scheme in the short term. The revisionism shores up the myth of egalitarianism, while coverage of the scandal itself stokes interest in the league. Any pretense for a furor will do, as long as the right team is involved. Fretting over a few warm Panthers footballs won’t pay any dividends, so the league doesn’t bother. But a Patriots part-timer poking pigskins in the bathroom with a needle? That demands an investigation.

There’s peril in tossing around all these accusations, though: The disease can spread. Take it from former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, a three-time Super Bowl champion widely regarded as one of the best ever at his position. Rice reached for his discredit card as soon as the initial Deflategate news broke: “can anyone spell cheating!!!” he tweeted on January 20. He then presumably leaned back in contentment as the plaudits rolled in. Sure, the rings were nice, but Jerry was always in it for the retweets.

Unfortunately for Rice, it wasn’t all Twitter faves and high-fives. In an ESPN segment that aired three days prior to the “cheating!!!” tweet, Rice had told an interviewer how he used to prepare football gloves back in his playing days. “I know this might be a little illegal, guys,” Rice said, tilting his head to indicate he had entered rascal mode. “I just sprayed a little Stickum on ’em, just to make sure that texture is a little sticky.” By the way, Stickum makes things sticky, in case Jerry Rice failed to explain that, which he didn’t.

That mischievous, fun-loving goofball was right. Stickum was “a little illegal” when he played in the NFL. (The anti-adhesive regulation was added in 1981; Rice was probably reading from the King James version of the rulebook.) A few internet observers noticed this contradiction in Rice’s otherwise airtight moral code, so he followed up with another tweet to explain that when he bent the rules, he was simply trying to ensure an equal playing field for all. Jerry Rice’s sense of justice works on a macro level, see.

What actually happened here is that Rice saw his towering, song-worthy achievements of the ’80s and ’90s being reassessed by the NFL standards of 2015, and it spooked him. He realized that today, his extraordinary run would be the beginning of endless, shouty litigation in the court of public opinion. The league turned into a fever-dream Judge Judy rerun so fast, Rice didn’t even realize it.

Rice was held accountable for his slurs, and on the topic of accountability, I’d like to hold up some of my own assertions for scrutiny. In a piece reacting to the Wells Report—which documented attorney Ted Wells’ investigation into New England’s under-pressurized footballs—I wrote last week that handsome and wonderful Patriots quarterback Tom Brady “messed up and shamed his team,” and that he “earned the criticism and punishment he’s going to receive.” Those were my sentiments at the time I wrote them, although I didn’t mention the handsome and wonderful parts, as I was trying to sound dignified. But my disappointment was real. I felt foolish for having placed faith in the Patriots organization. And as a New England partisan, I was struck overall by findings that were, as ESPN’s Reiss put it, “stronger than expected.”

But those passages of mine that I quoted above have grated on me in the days since, like a lemon zester made of pompous things I said. I was naive enough to think that, given the sketchy evidence against Brady, he would probably be fined and we could move on with our lives. But I struggled to justify them as I re-read the Wells Report, and read some parts some more, and reviewed select portions from afterimages burned on my retina. While I still think the report is a thorough and largely careful document assembled by earnest investigators, I can also see that it is designed to make a case rather than to explicate the whole truth as we know it.

The initial shock of those “deflator” text messages faded as I spent more time with the report, while Wells’ omissions grew more prominent. And so the madness was reborn. Once again I found myself plunging into the void of logical inconsistencies and unknowables, as if I were zooming into a Mandelbrot set of half-formed evidence, a vacuum whose edges never quite resolve. Despite promises I made the last time this happened, I relapsed: I was a Deflategate rabbit-holer once more. I started noticing things, picking through the evidence as if I was in my own personal 12 Angry Men sequel: One Man Who Is Angrier About Football Than He Probably Should Be.

I noticed, for example, that rather than include any substantial testimony from their interview with Brady—perhaps introducing his side of the story into the mix—Wells et al. instead complained about their lack of access to text messages from the quarterback’s personal cell phone. Brady’s refusal to share any texts with the investigation team has been a central point of indictment for ProFootballTalk’s Mike Florio and other pundits, because why would Brady desire privacy unless he were evil? (I assume that if Florio’s employer commissioned a highly public witch hunt designed to destroy his reputation, he would eagerly hand over his cell phone to be scoured for hints of wrongdoing.) The NFL’s letter to Brady cites his “failure to cooperate fully” as justification for its punishment, so it’s worth noting that in 2010, when Brett Favre declined to cooperate with a league investigation into sexual harassment charges against him, he was fined $50,000—no suspension. But that case was just about Favre creating an environment that was uncomfortable for women, not something important like a missing puff of air.

I also noticed that according to the report, the league alerted practically everybody but the Patriots to concerns over game balls prior to the AFC Championship, yet inconvenient questions about this de-facto sting operation are dismissed in a single footnote on page 46. (The footnote says, essentially, “There was no sting operation because we say so.”) And innocuous acts like Brady signing memorabilia for his underpaid staff are implied to be part of an underhanded kickback scheme even though this sort of handout is standard operating procedure among NFL stars.

Finally, I noticed that an entire scientific analysis, complete with elaborate statistical regressions, is founded on referee Walt Anderson’s recall of pre-game pressure readings, which nobody thought to write down. The report simply trusts the recollections of the magnificent Anderson, except when his memories might undermine the case against the Patriots, in which case Anderson is considered dumb and wrong, the old fool. (It’s only fair to mention that the last, hyperlinked insight comes from Mike Florio, too. Since the Wells Report emerged, Florio has virtuosically incited both sides of this story, like some sort of double agent provocateur.)

This is the basis on which we’re supposed to disgrace Tom Brady, and it’s patchy ground. So allow me to backtrack. Yes, Brady may have slipped up here by contributing to a rules infraction. But no, Brady has not earned the punishment—four games, seriously?—nor the criticism he’s received in the wake of the Deflategate report, and I’m sorry I said otherwise. Fans follow the league to watch athletes be good at football, and Tom Brady has dedicated his adult life to playing football as well as he can possibly play it. In return, the cowards in the NFL executive suite and their mass-media allies of convenience have striven to cut Brady down with technicalities, innuendo, and ham-fisted discipline. Meanwhile, their smear campaign has done nothing to preserve the integrity of the game.

In fact, it’s achieved the opposite. By magnifying piddling transgressions to the level of a court-martial, and by encouraging viewers to question the outcome they see on the field, the braying sheriffs of the football world have needlessly undermined the sport’s credibility. What a sad picture of tedium and irrelevance the Deflategate echo chamber is—what a depressing vision for the future of pro football discourse. This is not what the sport ought to become. I don’t expect everyone to love Tom Brady for his accomplishments, quite the contrary. (I may be biased, but I’m not nuts.) But it’s beyond time to admit that those accomplishments are real—and to realize that the public figures who claim to defend the game’s honor are actually eating it away from the inside.