Was a four-game suspension too harsh for Tom Brady?
Well, think about the precedent it would have set if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell backed down from penalizing the Super Bowl champion and one of the most powerful owners in the league under a new conduct policy. You might as well pack up the new conduct committee and send home the investigators. The message would have been: The new NFL is the same old NFL.
In the wake of Brady's suspension, plenty of pundits have said the NFL was too severe in its Deflategate penalty, which was delivered by Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations. Owner Bob Kraft said in a statement on Monday that he'd been prepared to accept whatever punishment was on the way -- but not this one.
"Today's punishment, however, far exceeded any reasonable expectation," Kraft said.
The Patriots have been fined $1 million and are docked a 2016 first-round pick and a 2017 fourth-rounder, by some unknown logic. But, in addition to the roughly $2 million Tom Brady will lose as he sits, the NFL has raised the stakes for perceived infractions.
The Ray Rice case has forever altered how the league will consider discipline. By instituting a new policy in the wake of what was universally panned as an inadequate two-game suspension for Rice, the league installed the possibility of an indefinite suspension for a second offense, essentially raising the ceiling on player discipline. Greg Hardy's 10-game suspension was the opening salvo in what could be a new era of increased penalties.
On a conference call Tuesday, Ted Wells reiterated that the Patriots cooperated until the most critical impasse: a request for a follow-up interview with Jim McNally, "the deflator." Wells doubled down that the evidence he uncovered -- texts that read like esoteric poems at a coffee house open mike -- are quite explicit in what they show.
The NFL can't have one firm standard for substance abuse infractions committed by players, and then a softer tier for the white-collar violators like Brady. Remember, the NFL's view is that the evidence pointed to his participation in deflating footballs, which undermined the fairness of the game. The goal of either violation is a competitive advantage.
The NFL can't have one standard for players who undermine the integrity of the game by using HGH, and another for an organization that has been cited more than once for actions that could tip the balance of power on an even playing field. Kraft, coach Bill Belichick and his staff ultimately have more control over the game than, say, a backup lineman trying to get a competitive edge.
What Brady and Hardy have in common, according to the press releases announcing their discipline, is an unwillingness to fully cooperate with the league in their respective investigations. If Brady can obscure the truth en route to the Super Bowl MVP trophy, then why would any player be transparent with the league ever again?
The fact that Goodell is actually confronting one of the most powerful owners in the league is a departure. He doesn't increase his job security if he goes after an owner like Kraft. It was thanks to NFL royalty like Kraft, the Maras and Rooneys that Goodell enjoyed relative job security as people called for his job in the wake of the Rice fiasco. Now Goodell appears to be risking that good will to maintain the integrity of a new code of conduct policy created in its wake.
Brady's agent, Don Yee, has already said the quarterback will appeal. Given Kraft's statement on not accepting the decision, it's likely the Patriots will as well.
And this is where it gets tricky. Does Kraft accept Goodell as the final decision-maker? Or does he ask for a neutral party to make the call?
If Kraft insists on the latter, he puts his league in the business of offering neutral justice to teams and owners while the players have to submit to a leader many have come to dislike. The NFL Players Association has long pushed the league for an impartial voice at the end of the disciplinary process, and might soon have an unwitting owner making the case for them.
This is about to get ugly -- even before you factor in Patriots protestors live-streaming a sit-in at NFL headquarters and fundraisers to pay a billionaire's fine.
Goodell hasn't won a lot of friends in his discipline in this case, but he is trying to put firmer standards for code of conduct violations into play. It's a risky play. Whether he still has the support of the other 30 league owners remains to be seen.