This post was prompted by the ongoing “Deflategate” case, but there is more I want to talk about. On the whole, I have a problem with NFL punishments. Either they’re too light or too harsh. Many of them are arbitrary and reactionary. This was somewhat pointed out by U.S. District Court Judge Richard M. Berman, albeit for the case he was working on.
What is Deflategate?
As many of us following the NFL already know, this isn’t over although Tom Brady got a ruling in his favor recently. This case has gone on for over 7 months. That’s entirely too long.
For those of you who don’t know what it’s about, here’s a basic rundown:
In 2006, the National Football League — after being lobbied by quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady — decided to change the rules for how game balls were handled. Since then, teams would be responsible for providing the game balls used for their respective offenses and kickers in each contest, but the equipment had to be inspected by officials before the games began.
- The footballs all had to be inflated between a range of 12.5 to 13.5 PSI.
- The two teams would provide a total of 24 footballs (12 for each).
- Since 1999, kickers used different footballs (as signified by the K on the balls) than those for regular play, so that stayed the same.
A controversy arose in late January of this year as the New England Patriots hosted the Indianapolis Colts for the American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game. At halftime, someone on the Colts side alerted the officials to underinflated footballs. (Initially, it was reported that 11 of the 12 balls for the Patriots were underinflated.) The balls were checked, re-inflated, and the contest went on. After the game, this issue was reported and it took on a life of its own as the Patriots prepared to play in Super Bowl XLIX against the Seattle Seahawks.
It didn’t end there. The Ted Wells Report came out in May and two employees for the Patriots, assistant equipment manager John Jastremski and part-time attendant Jim McNally, were implicated and fired. The Patriots were fined $1 million and stripped of draft picks. Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, mostly for his noncompliance with the Wells investigation. He fought this and ultimately won a decision in a New York court. However, the NFL plans to appeal…
(Now to step back for a moment…it sounds all kinda silly, tbqh. I’m not a Patriots fan by any means, but I thought this was much ado about nothing. Sure, if the Patriots tampered with balls, that was cheating but beyond having a better grip, I never saw how the balls would give the team much of an advantage over the Colts. Honestly, I expected the Patriots to blow out the Colts. This is what has happened over the past 4-5 meetings between these two teams. Also, my mind was blown over how much pomp and circumstance was given to the inspection of footballs. I guess rules are rules and this must be done to comply with them, so whatever.)
What Berman Said in His Ruling
The four-game suspension was vacated largely on the grounds of the League’s investigation, protocol, and the rights extended to Brady during all of it. Here is what the judge in Tom Brady’s case said (as shown in the meat of an article from the Boston Globe):
The judge concluded, however, that Goodell permitted the process to be spoiled by “several significant legal deficiencies,’’ including informing Brady he could be disciplined under a “competitive integrity policy’’ for league executives rather than a standard for players.
Under the policy for players, Brady’s punishment could have been limited to a fine of only $5,512 if he were found responsible for violating equipment rules for the first time, the judge noted.
Berman, who was appointed to the federal court in 1998 by President Bill Clinton, said Brady was entitled to receive the proper advance notice of the NFL’s list of prohibited conduct and potential penalties. Instead, the judge ruled, Brady found himself wrongly suspended under a policy governing steroid abuse.
In addition, Berman found that the NFL erred in applying an inappropriate standard of culpability in Brady’s case. The Wells Report stated Brady was “generally aware’’ that two Patriots employees — assistant equipment manager John Jastremski and part-time attendant Jim McNally — had allegedly schemed to tamper with Brady’s game balls.
“The court concludes that, as a matter of law, no NFL policy or precedent notifies players they may be disciplined (much less suspended) for general awareness of misconduct by others,’’ the judge stated.
Goodell also was found to have harmed Brady by denying his right to question NFL general counsel Jeff Pash during his arbitration hearing. The NFL refused to make Pash available, saying he had no significant bearing on the Wells Report.
In short, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell:
- Was misleading. He did not inform Tom Brady of the scale of punishment the QB faced.
- Was inconsistent. Brady should have been held to the same standards as all NFL players and his transgressions should have been weighted as such.
- Did not give Brady an ample chance to seek a full and vigorous defense. In proper legal proceedings, a defendant should have access to opposing legal counsel.
- Used a dubious distinction, “Generally aware,” to find Brady guilty of tampering footballs. (Honestly, it looks like Brady really did know about this — and put the now-indefinitely suspended Patriots employees up to it in the first place. McNally even called himself “The Deflator” and Brady destroyed his cell phone right before he was to testify. Come on. If that doesn’t look suspicious…)
The Problems with Goodell’s Role as Punisher
On the one hand, I believed that it was kind of arrogant for the NFL’s punishment to be fought so vigorously. The collective bargaining agreement gave Goodell the power to be “judge, jury, and executioner” for all league cases involving players. The was a pretty bad stipulation, like the banning of marijuana usage by players (imo), but the players in effect agreed to these terms.
On the other hand, I feel that Judge Berman’s assessment of Brady’s punishment was a fair one. Basically it feeds into the problems with the big punishments Goodell has handed out since becoming NFL Commissioner:
- In 2008, the Patriots were accused of illegally videotaping other teams’ signals from those teams’ sidelines. The Patriots were fined $250,000 and stripped of a first-round draft pick. Coach Bill Belichick was found culpable and his $500,000 was essentially paid by the team’s owner, Bob Craft. Many saw the punishment as being too light, and making matters worse was how some evidence was destroyed by the league.
- Compare that to 2012, when the New Orleans Saints were accused of running a bounty program. As part of the secret findings, four players who were on the Saints team in 2011 and a few years prior were suspended, ranging from 2 to 8 games. Those suspensions were vacated. However, Saints Coach Sean Payton was suspended for the entire season and so was Gregg Williams, the former defensive coordinator. The investigation and subsequent punishment was compared to a star chamber, wherein those accused didn’t so much as see the evidence used against them or have any opportunity to adequately defend themselves. From the six people accused, it seems Gregg Williams was rightfully suspended. Payton was given the line, “Ignorance is no excuse,” although it was completely possible he had no idea of any bounty program. In any event, most felt the punishments were too harsh and only served to make the Saints less competitive that season.
- In 2014, Ray Rice was initially suspended for two games following the publication of an incriminating video from Atlantic City. It was generally understood that Rice had knocked out his then-fiancée, Janay Parker. Goodell increased the punishment to 4 games, but the damage had already been done.
- Also in 2014 was a case involving Minnesota Vikings Running Back Adrian Peterson. He had whipped his then-4-year-old son with a switch, leaving welts on the boy’s legs, arms, and scrotum. Peterson, who had only played in one game that season, was suspended indefinitely. The suspension was vacated by U.S. District Judge David S. Doty in late February. While it would have been fair to suspend Peterson for at least four games, his indefinite suspension was reactionary.
Add to that cases involving Greg Hardy (now on the Dallas Cowboys squad), Aldon Smith (formerly of the San Francisco 49ers), and Ray MacDonald (also from the 49ers, and then the Bears). Hardy and MacDonald were involved in domestic violence cases, with only Hardy being given an indefinite suspension by the league. Hardy’s suspension was reduced for this season from 10 to 4 games. Aldon Smith was suspended for 9 games in 2014, after Goodell promised to take the 5 games from 2013 Smith missed into account.
The fact is, sadly, there was no protocol in suspending players for domestic violence charges. The protocol for dealing with DUI’s and repeat offenses is spotty, too. This is the problem I have with NFL punishments.
There needs to be a protocol for domestic violence, and that needs to be weighted against all other possible infractions by players. Now, while the punishments for performance enhancing drugs, marijuana usage, and DUI’s are fairly consistent, how do they stack up to outright cheating and general conduct?
If I had to come up with rules, I would try to balance fines and lost games according to the infractions:
- I would get rid of the marijuana ban, except to ban the usage by players on game days and during official interviews and the possession of pot on NFL and team premises. DUI’s are DUI’s, so it doesn’t matter if marijuana was used then.
- DUI’s would warrant two games for each infraction, with increasing fines for repeat offenders. An extra game would be added for property damage and up to four games would be added for anyone hurt by the inebriated player. Deaths would warrant an indefinite suspension. In any case, rehab would be a requirement.
- Players found to use performance-enhancing drugs would be suspended for no more than 4 games a season max. Instead of making a player miss an entire season — under a testing system that will not catch all players using anyway — I would hand out increasing fines that will be capped after a certain amount, depending on what the players earn.
- Certain personal fouls by players may warrant 4 games at minimum. The harshest penalties will be reserved for players, coaches, and owners who actively seek to injure other players. Not only does that put a player’s health at risk, it also puts that player’s life, career, and livelihood at risk. A real bounty program would have to the worst offense in the game and thus the worst offense against the league’s integrity.
- Domestic violence charges would earn 4-game bans minimum. Now, I wouldn’t know what to do about a bar fight, as they may need more discretion, and cases of self-defense must be considered, too.
- Sexual assaults would garner no fewer than four games.
- Anyone, whether it be a player, coach, assistant, or owner, would be suspended 1-2 games at minimum if caught cheating and they would be fined increasingly for repeat offenses. Yes, it would be a commissioner’s job “to uphold the integrity of the league,” but far too many people cheat in all actuality and cheating in a sport pales in comparison to the above infractions. Draft picks would still be taken based on the offense and I would include the option of shrinking the usable cap space for offending teams.
- I would hold game officials accountable for bad calls. That means no player, coach, or owner would be fined for calling these officials out on bad calls.
- Also, I would make sure officials were on the same page in terms of what calls they make. There needs to be more consistency from officiating crew to officiating crew and from game to game.
I’m probably leaving something out, but that’s the general idea. In short, discipline for behavioral infractions would be leaning towards games lost. For most game-integrity infractions, I would go heavily on fines.
The point is for the NFL to do two things. First, it would be able to maintain good PR for fairly and consistently dealing with certain offenses. Second, a consistent protocol would make it pretty much impossible for players to get their punishments vacated, which would also help the NFL’s PR.