“The integrity of the game.”
How often have fans of the NFL — or any other major sporting league — heard that phrase?
It is why Pete Rose is banned for life from Major League Baseball. Yes, he lied, but what he lied about was betting on baseball, including games in which the team he managed, the Cincinnati Reds, were playing, thus calling into question “the integrity of the game.”
It is why New Orleans was so heavily punished for “Bountygate” in which bonuses were paid to players who injured, or knocked from the game, key players on the opposition. Assistant coaches were fired, head coach Sean Payton suspended for a year and the Saints were fined. They were forced to forfeit second-round draft picks in 2012 and 2013 and four players were also suspended, including linebacker Jonathan Vilma being suspended for an entire season.
The punishment was not without precedence, as former Lions star defensive tackle Alex Karras and Packer star halfback Paul Hornung were suspended for the entire 1963 season for betting on NFL games.
Now the sporting world waits to hear what punishment the NFL front office — which could use some favorable press — will dish out to the New England Patriots and their golden-boy quarterback, Tom Brady.
You might recall that in 2007 the Patriots and head coach Bill Belichick were caught red-lensed illegally videotaping the signals used on the sidelines by the opposition. The Patriots were fined $250,000 and forced to surrender their 2008 first round draft pick, with Belichick fined the league maximum of $500,000.
In the years that have followed, New England and Belichick have come under suspicion several times for a variety of alleged violations, none of which charges have ever been proven.
Now comes Deflategate, where the NFL’s investigation flatly states that Brady “more likely than not” knew something was being done to doctor the game balls used in the first half of the 2014 AFC Championship game against Indianapolis.
Belichick has been cleared in the matter, but in the week before the Super Bowl New England owner Robert Kraft made a statement to the press wherein he smugly denied any malfeasance and demanded the NFL issue a public apology to all involved once the matter, in his words “shows no one involved with the Patriots did anything wrong.”
Ok, Bob, what do you have to say now?
This is not a criminal case where a unified jury must agree on guilt. It is more akin to a civil judgment, and, if like Brady and a few Patriot officials, you are found “more likely than not” to be at fault (even 51% at fault) you lose. Period.
Brady has, at the least, been obstinate. He refused to turn over his cell phone or text messages when requested, thus seeking to block the investigation. Why, if he had nothing to hide?
Mr. Clean-cut has smugly stated that not only did he do nothing wrong but that he was also totally unaware of anything wrong being done in the first place.
Deflating the balls had no appreciable effect on the game, as those defending Brady and the Patriots have crowed incessantly. Brady’s impressive second-half performance (in which the NFL agrees all balls were properly inflated) proves he gained no advantage by using under-inflated balls in the first half, his defenders howl while thus trying to prove a negative.
A lengthy list of former NFL quarterbacks have publicly said there was no way Brady would be unable to notice the difference — even at one-half a foot-pound less pressure — between an under-inflated and/or regulation ball.
It is also something less than incredulous to think anyone would alter a ball Brady would possibly use in a game without, at least, a wink and a nod from the franchise’s poster boy.
At question is “the integrity of the game.”
New England, and Belichick and Brady in particular, have a rabid and loyal fan base, but one that is almost entirely geographical, unlike those of teams, like, for instance, Green Bay or Dallas. West of the Hudson River, the Patriots are, at best, disliked, and in many places the whole New England organization has become the most hated in the league.
None of that should matter to former player Troy Vincent, current NFL executive vice president of operations, who will shortly decide the punishments to be handed down. As NFL Commissioner, Roger Goodell will have to give at least tacit approval.
Whether or not Brady and the Patriots gained a competitive edge by under-inflating game balls is not the issue. That they have been found “more likely than not” to have attempted to do so is.
The two New England personnel involved must be fired (which is almost certain to happen, whether ordered so by the league or not). Brady must be suspended at least eight games, the team fined at least $250,000 and must also lose at least a second-round pick in each of the next two years, thus matching the penalties imposed on New Orleans, which was found to have violated “the integrity of the game.”
The on-field officials who blew the 2001 divisional game between Oakland and New England with the inane “tuck rule” call helped launch (with big thanks to kick Adam Vinateiri, who three times saved Brady’s bacon with last-second kicks) the Patriot quarterback’s legend.
Now the league office can insure that this call against Brady, like the one in 2001, follow “the letter of the rule” as well and guarantee a lengthy suspension, if for no other reason than to preserve “the integrity of the game.”