The NFL has officially announced how much it costs to deflate a football a few pounds per square inch: One 2016 first round draft pick, one 2017 fourth round draft pick, one million dollars, and four games of Tom Brady.
This is certainly one of the heftier disciplinary measures the NFL has levied in recent memory. Any team that loses four games of its best player is going to be in some serious trouble, and the loss of draft picks has a compounding effect. If the Patriots lose games as a result of Tom Brady’s absence, the first round pick increases in value. The loss of 2016’s first round draft pick negatively affects the team’s ability to build a winner moving forward, increasing the value of the 2017 fourth round draft pick. These are huge sanctions.
This raises an interesting question. Now, no reasonable person would say that a few mildly deflated footballs had any kind of enormous impact on the AFC Championship game. The final score was 45-7. But let’s tease this out.
Let’s say your favorite team is in the conference championship game. Let’s also say that your team is privy to some method of cheating that will significantly improve their chances of winning the conference game, thereby significantly improving their chances of winning the Super Bowl. Let’s also say that there is a 100% chance they get caught. If the punishment for cheating in this situation is that your quarterback is suspended for 25% of next season, and the loss of a first round draft pick, isn’t that worth it?
Trading away future success for success in the present is a well accepted model in professional sports. Top prospects are traded away by title contenders for rental players, in hopes that they find the missing piece they need to win a championship. Draft picks are swapped for players that fill immediate needs. The New England Patriots used a variation of this model in the 14-15 NFL Playoffs. With a 37 year old quarterback, and a defense led by a cornerback with one foot out the door, the Patriots mortgaged their future in exchange for Super Bowl XLIX.
On SportsCenter this afternoon, NFL analyst Adam Schefter said, “…[the integrity of the game] is what the NFL is guarding against. The integrity of the NFL.” Unfortunately, what Mr. Schefter means is that the NFL is reprimanding Tom Brady and the Patriots for transgressions of personal integrity, not violating the structural integrity of the game of football. The “integrity” of the game doesn’t seem to be in question here whatsoever. Look at it this way: The NFL rulebook is not a list of situations in which a referee has to throw a yellow handkerchief. It’s an exhaustive definition of what a football game is. To maintain the integrity of the game is to ensure that what the Colts and Patriots played last January was, in fact, a game of football.
Suppose that instead of deflating footballs, they had shortened the first down chains by two yards. So that instead of requiring ten yards for a first down, they only needed eight. To call that “cheating at football” would be silly, because gridiron American football is, by definition, played with ten yard first downs. To play with eight yard first downs is to play some other sport. This all being the case, the notion of protecting the integrity of the game doesn’t seem to be in play here. Roger Goodell’s position seems to be that the Patriots and Colts definitely played a football game, but Tom Brady played it in such a manner that lacked personal integrity.
If the Patriots run no risk of their actions being labeled, “not a football game”, the only thing really at stake for Belichick and Brady by cheating is their legacy. Sports bloggers and drunks on barstools will now forever bemoan that this Patriots dynasty is tainted. For Brady and Belichick, though, this doesn’t matter. People started calling them cheaters in 2007 after Spygate, and they’ve been the most hated team in professional sports ever since people noticed that Tom Brady is handsome. But Boston sports fans love them nonetheless, and they always will. The Brady/Belichick legacy has been cemented for years: Heroes in New England, grumpy handsome jerks in the rest of the world. Deflating footballs was never going to change their legacy, it was only going to increase their chances of winning a football game.
The Patriots have been patently unlikeable for about fifteen years now. A huge part of that unlikeability has been their enormous success, coupled with their genius level football intellect. This is a situation in which the New England Patriots made use of an age old sports strategy, and manipulated it in a way that was specific to their football situation. Yes, they lose Tom Brady for a few games, yes they lose valuable draft picks, and one million dollars but they won the Super Bowl. Isn’t that the whole point?
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