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Deflategate: NFL Needs to Revisit Punishment Policy, Belichick Should Be Suspended

Now that the dust has settled following the Wells Report, many people seem to at least have a general idea of the circumstances surrounding the New England Patriots' alleged deflating of footballs to their advantage over the course of (at least) the 2014 season. So why was ignorance an excuse this time?

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Every fanbase in the NFL has a persecution complex.  Whether the referees were out to get a team or some kind of institutional policy didn't work in their favor; the Holy Roller was a sham, the Tuck Rule is stupid and the Calvin Johnson Rule should never have been enforced (not to mention the Green Bay/Seattle debacle, but that was due to sheer incompetence more than anything else).  However, when the NFL deliberately and completely ignores a precedent previously set by another case, it cannot be overlooked.

The NFL didn't come down lightly on the New England Patriots today for their involvement in Deflategate.  Tom Brady received a four game suspension, the Patriots lost a first round draft pick in 2016, a fourth in 2017, and they were fined $1 million dollars. The notable exception to the list of punishments is Bill Belichick.

When the NFL listed off their reasons for suspending Saints head Coach Sean Payton in 2012 for an entire year following Bountygate, it included the now fairly infamous line "ignorance is not an excuse."  This set a steadfast, harsh policy for the NFL.  It implicates that, if someone is in charge, it's necessary that they're aware of the goings on in their organization.  Of course, Sean Payton may or may not have known about the existence of a pay for performance program (that's the nice way of putting it), but the problem is that the NFL didn't have any steadfast evidence that he did.  So, rather than holding the men responsible accountable the NFL instead opted to send a message to the rest of the league.  This method is fine, as the pay for performance program in and of itself was absolutely not acceptable.

The way that the NFL has levied punishments since, however, has absolutely not followed that precedent.  One thing that cannot be overstated is that this is not a Saints' issue.  It's a consistency issue.  Of course coming from the source, this may come off as bitter, but it's really a serious concern about the way that the league handles punishments.

Deflategate, by its nature, was a silly case, and almost every fan, pundit and person that didn't watch football seemed to know it.  The issue is that the NFL seems to heavily gauge public opinion before punishing players.  The bounties were a blight on the league, so they were heavily punished.  It's worth noting, however, that a rule is a rule.  Thinking of it in the context of penalties, each penalty has a set punishment that is then thusly enforced.  At an institutional level, such a system doesn't exist.  It's not strictly regulated; it's at the discretion of committees, the commissioner, and, unfortunately, the public.  Now, it's naive to think that the NFL needs to make a punishment system similar to the penalty system, as there are too many variables at the institutional level.  But some semblance of consistency would uphold the "integrity of the game" that everyone is preaching far more effectively than the methods that are employed to punish players now.

The NFL, as it is, has a catch-all phrase in that aforementioned "integrity of the game" clause.  Anyone can be suspended for violating the integrity of the game.  It could be a hit that's a little too brutal, a penalty that's a little too convenient or a ball that's a little too deflated.  The integrity of the game itself, however, will remain intact.  It's just an umbrella phrase so as to rationalize harsh penalties.  "The balls had a slightly lower PSI than acceptable" doesn't sound as good as "Tom Brady violated the integrity of the game."  Nobody wants the integrity of the game that they love violated, and so the expression in and of itself is nothing but a buzzword.  Whether or not Deflategate should have become the debacle that it did is a discussion for another time, however.

No one will ever be fully happy with the way punishments are levied and rules are enforced, that's a fact of the league.  The NBA, NHL and MLB all have their flaws in this regard, and then there's the NCAA which is in a league of its own when it comes to institutional incompetence.  But the system can always be improved.  Whether it's through an independent committee, the NFL can't just say things from report to report and then not carry those things over to the next case.  Different violations should be taken on a case to case basis, but previous cases cannot just be disregarded.  There's a reason that the Supreme Court slaves over their decisions.  They know that every decision that they make will influence cases in the future.  If the NFL doesn't hold itself accountable for their previous decisions and punishments, then it mitigates every decision that they make and they can rationalize anything that they do with the flimsiest reasoning.  While this is, admittedly, a dramatic example, hyperbole is oftentimes embroiled in some truth.  If the NFL decided to do this, then they could.  And that kind of power is far more than the institution should hold.

If ignorance isn't an excuse, then don't let it be an excuse.  But don't come out with language like "more probable than not" three years later, and then state that ignorance is, in fact, an excuse because it's only probable. The NFL is an institution that is driven by public opinion, and this is fine, but it needs to somehow hold itself to a higher standard when its rules are violated, no matter the severity of the violation.