Feeling deflated

Back in January, news broke that the NFL were investigating the possibility that some footballs used in the AFC Championship Game may have been outside of the League’s mandated pressures. At the time, almost everybody said “Oh”, and moved on.

I don’t think anyone expected that, 4 months later, we’d be talking about the NFL having handed down a $1M fine, 4 game suspension and two revoked draft picks in connection with the same story – the saga nicknamed DeflateGate.

It is, in my opinion, a ridiculous level of punishment for contravention of a somewhat obscure League rule.

Firstly a quick recap for those who, like many, paid this perceived non-story little attention at the time:

The NFL rules (Rule 2, Section 1 to be precise) state that the ball “…shall be made up of an inflated (12.5 to 13.5 pounds) urethane bladder”. During the course of the Championship Game a ball was removed from those being used by New England, and taken away for spot testing. It was later reported that of the 12 balls being used by the Patriots, 11 of them failed to meet the minimum pressure of 12.5psi.

Their opponents that day, the Indianapolis Colts, were using their own set of 12 footballs which, presumably, were inflated to within the required parameters.

The Patriots won the game 45-7 and went on to win SuperBowl XLIX. Meanwhile the NFL appointed attorney Wells, who also led the investigation in to the Miami Dolphins locker room issues of 2013, to investigate any potential wrong-doing by the Patriots.

After what seemed a long enough time to indicate the League had forgotten all about soft footballs, Ted Wells published his report earlier this month. The report runs to 243 pages, and repeatedly uses phrases such as “…it is more probable than not…” and “…was at least generally aware…”. Whilst being mildly incriminating for Patriots QB Tom Brady (along with Patriots backroom staff Jim McNally and John Jastremski), it was hardly a damning report packed full of cold hard evidence.

The report brought us to the announcement from the League this week of the aforementioned punitive measures, suspending Brady for the first four games of the 2015 regular season, and revoking the Patriots 1st Round pick in the 2016 Draft, along with their 4th Round pick in the 2017 Draft. They will also be relieving them of $1M by way of a fine.

To me, that’s a ridiculously disproportionate punishment for the crime in question even if, as the NFL stated, it damages the integrity of the League.

There are a number of factors in play here that mean neither the offence itself, nor the punishment, are clear cut issues in my opinion.

The gauges used to measure the pressure of the footballs were not calibrated in any way. Indeed, the two sets of readings taken from the 11 balls tested varied by anything up to 0.45psi per football. OK, so that’s not going to have meant all the footballs were in fact inside the required boundaries, but can you really give so much credence to poor equipment and testing procedures? Enough to cost a franchise $1M and its star QB for quarter of a season, and the potential to damage the next two seasons’ Draft process?

Let me remind you, the Patriots won the game 45-7. It wasn’t even close.

If this were a game that had come down to a last second field goal that the Colts had missed and it was later discovered that the ball tossed out from the sideline had been tampered with, then perhaps a difference in psi would be a deciding factor. If the Colts were made to use the same under inflated footballs that they perhaps weren’t used to, it may be a deciding factor.

As it was, it was a game with a 38 point margin of victory over a team who brought their own footballs to use. That can not be attributed in any way to the Patriots using slightly under inflated footballs in my opinion.

I agree that “rules are rules” and the Patriots (somewhat suspect pressure gauges aside) broke those rules by softening the footballs they were using, but 4 games? TWO draft picks?

I fully expect the League will reduce Brady’s suspension after the inevitable appeal, probably by half to 2 games, which is where I think the League possibly wanted to end up anyway, but it is still a baffling punishment given there is no hard evidence that confirms Brady was the instigator.

Throughout the course of the investigation, various members of the Patriots staff were asked to turn in their mobile phones in order that text and email messages could be checked. It was via this that McNally (officials’ locker room attendant) and Jastremski (equipment assistant) were supposedly implicated, with several texts being sent between the two referencing ball pressures and Brady himself.

The investigative team asked that Brady hand over his mobile also, which he declined to do, and the League say his punishment is more down to him not fully co-operating with the investigation than it is any definitive evidence against him.

Given his stature in the US and the interest his personal phone/email records would likely generate to some of a less scrupulous nature, I can’t say I blame Brady for not willingly handing over his mobile. Particularly to an organisation who are alleged to be less than watertight when it comes to leaking information.

“…generally aware…” is not the same as “…it was Brady in the Library with the Candlestick, guv’nor…” in my book, so it’s hard to disagree with the statement that Brady’s suspension is purely because he wouldn’t play ball, but it’s still hefty for someone saying mind your own business.

To add some context here, this is a 4 game suspension based on hearsay, implication and, at best, conjecture. That’s TWICE the punishment ex-Ravens running back Ray Rice received initially when news broke of his abhorrent treatment of his fiancee. There was video evidence of that, to boot.

Yes, that’s right, Rice was only suspended for 2 games initially until the gathering storm forced the League to revisit his suspension and make it indefinite.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft has always protested his franchise’s innocence throughout this whole process, but has said they would accept any punishment handed down from the League as a result of the investigation. Whilst it has to sting that such a heavy penalty has been imposed (and Mr Kraft has said as much recently), you have to admire and respect Kraft’s stance which, for now at least, remains unchanged.

However, for the NFL to castigate the Patriots ownership on the basis of “you probably weren’t aware, but that’s not an excuse” when Commissioner Roger Goodell’s own reasoning for Rice’s initial suspension was that he wasn’t aware of the video footage, smacks of hypocrisy at best. In reality, I think it’s yet another demonstration of the NFL’s recent inconsistency in dealing with misdemeanours, and one that further diminishes Goodell’s tenure.

The Patriots’ past record was taken in to account when considering this most recent punishment (they were caught in 2007 video taping opposition sidelines), but I honestly can’t believe that this whole matter wasn’t dealt with at the time in private, between the League and the Patriots. Instead it has become the now dominant story of this off-season.

The “crime” here, like the resulting punishments, have been allowed to balloon out of all proportion for me. It would seem much more so than the footballs used back in January that started it all.

They aren’t the only things left feeling deflated.

 

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