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The NFL has made some perfectly reasonable and entirely predictable changes to its on-field operations in response to Deflategate. It has produced a detailed process for measuring pregame football inflation, fortified its chain of custody for balls during warm-ups and arranged for random halftime and postgame testing.
In theory, these changes should close many of the procedural holes revealed in the Wells report, which accused the New England Patriots of running a scheme to deflate footballs to the liking of quarterback Tom Brady. More importantly, however, they undermine the league's attempts to penalize the Patriots -- and Brady in particular -- for violating rules that at the time carried little established means for documenting compliance.
Brady has appealed his four-game suspension for being "at least generally aware" of the deflation scheme and might file a federal lawsuit if it is not vacated. Reports of an expanded policy have circulated for months, so if he hasn't already, Brady should use this revelation as clear evidence -- and even a tacit admission -- that the process used to punish him was insufficient and lacking the documentation necessary to justify his suspension.
Previously, as the Wells report demonstrated, the game referee measured pregame inflation of each team's 12 game balls on his own, but without recording the readings. If needed, the ref adjusted the pressure to ensure its range between 12.5 PSI and 13.5 PSI. Then the balls typically were delivered to the field by a member of the home locker room staff.
The new policy, as revealed by former NFL vice president of officiating and current FoxSports analyst Mike Pereira, requires the referee to designate two crew members to carry out the pregame football inspection. The balls will be numbered and their pregame inflation noted in writing. Any football falling outside the mandated range will be inflated to exactly 13 PSI.
Then, the kicking ball coordinator will expand his responsibilities and maintain custody of all game balls -- accompanied at times by a member of NFL security -- until 10 minutes before the game. The kicking ball coordinator will also arrange for random inflation testing at halftime and after games.
If the proper inflation of footballs is important to you, and not everyone agrees on the significance here, then these tweaks make sense. Without question, there will be much less guesswork and gray area in determining whether a longstanding NFL rule has been followed.
For Brady, however, each change can be viewed as a variable that casts doubt on culpability. Consider:
The NFL has now acknowledged that it's important to know the exact pregame inflation of each football. Brady was suspended without that acknowledgment.
The league admits that security surrounding footballs needed to be improved. Proof of Brady’s guilt was based in part on a Patriots employee taking game footballs into a bathroom during pregame warm-ups.
The NFL knows now that there should be a detailed process for checking compliance at halftime and after the game. Brady's suspension was rooted in an unprecedented and chaotic halftime scene at the AFC Championship Game in which two separate needles were used to test some footballs before time ran out.
The league has recognized, in effect, that its previous approach was lacking. Brady has been suspended for participation in a scheme with little of the documentation and process the NFL now considers essential.
The league would argue that its standard of proof -- "a preponderance of evidence" -- is low enough to justify Brady's discipline. At the same time, the new policy changes demonstrate the NFL's obvious discomfort with its predecessor. Can the league be comfortable with the evidence used to suspend Brady while at the same time admitting it needs better documentation moving forward?
That might be a question for a federal court to answer.