Why does everyone insist on claiming Brady's suspension is "unprecedented" or "extreme"? It’s neither.

What must Sean Payton be thinking today?

It's anyone's guess, because the New Orleans Saints' coach isn't crass enough to laugh out loud at the chorus of gasps that are somehow still sounding several days after the NFL announced New England quarterback Tom Brady’s four game suspension for cheating. But I imagine that Payton is wistfully (or perhaps bitterly) musing: "if only I'd just been caught cheating, then lied about it and obstructed the investigation, instead of, you know, going about my business and coaching football while other people in my organization broke the rules. I might not have lost my entire 2012 season..."

Why am I bringing Payton up today? Because I can't understand the collective amnesia that the NFL talking-head world seems to have acquired this week. In the wake of the NFL's suspension of Brady, docking of two Patriot draft picks, and fine of $1m to the team, the collective response from deflation apologists seems to be shock and awe – shock at the punishment's supposed severity and awe at the unfathomable novelty of such a comprehensive chastisement.

And I just have to ask: where on earth has everyone been?

Perhaps a quick recap is in order -- in timeline form:

2006 -- Brady (along with the famously meticulous Peyton Manning) successfully lobbies the NFL to allow quarterbacks on both visiting and home teams to "prepare" their own set of game balls, arguing that ball preparation makes a significant difference in how a quarterback can play.

2007 -- Spygate explodes, implicating the Patriot organization in illegal recording of opponent signals and pre-game walk-throughs over a period that includes three Super Bowl wins. The team and coach are fined, and New England forfeits one (of their two) first round draft picks that spring. No one is suspended or fired, the championships are not voided, and the NFL destroys all evidence before any more analysis can take place.

2007-14 -- Rather than decline as he ages, Brady's numbers skyrocket as his 30s drag on. Part of this can be attributed to physical freaks he can now throw ducks to (first Randy Moss, then Rob Gronkowski and the gentle Aaron Hernandez). But Brady, who initially made his name by losing his grip on the football in cold weather, becomes practically immune to turnovers in these years.

2015 – After a series of complaints at the AFC Championship game, league officials inspect Patriot-prepared footballs, all of which fall beneath league mandated inflation levels. Brady emphatically denies knowledge of any wrongdoing – going so far as to claim he can’t tell the difference between two footballs while he’s playing, and that he doesn’t even know equipment man John McNally, whose self-styled nickname is "the Deflator." Meanwhile, New England owner Robert Kraft demands an apology from the league for daring to suggest that anything could be amiss, and coach Bill Belicheck initially punts all inflation questions to Brady, then quotes My Cousin Vinny for some reason.

After New England wins the Super Bowl, most talking heads decide the whole thing was overblown and shrug that Roger Goodell probably won’t punish the Patriots anyway.

Finally, in May, the independent Wells commission releases its report, determining that, despite smoke-screens, intimidation, and outright lies, Brady is guilty of cheating by the common legal standard of "a preponderance of evidence." Brady is suspended for four-games, and the organization is docked two draft picks and fined.

Today, Patriot faithful are furious, but that’s to be expected. What I can’t understand is how so many supposedly unbiased critics (among them, SI’s Don Banks and Andy Benoit and Yahoo! Sports’ Frank Schwab, to name three I normally like) keep calling this excessive, disproportionate, and unprecedented.

To be sure, these criticisms are not about the size of the fines or the number of draft picks docked; Spygate's penalties make that point fairly easily. For stealing signals, Belicheck and the team were fined $750k and docked a 1st round pick; for deflating footballs, the team has been hit for $1m and 1st and 4th rounders. If the league needed to up the ante for a second offense (and it did), this is hardly an overreaction.

So where is the outrage directed? At the suspension of Brady. Let’s unpack those arguments a little:

"A suspension is way too heavy…"

What does it take to get suspended from the NFL? Very little, it turns out. Le'Veon Bell will sit for one game this year for smoking marijuana last off-season – a non-performance enhancing drug that is legal in several states.

What about a four game suspension? A first-offense PED conviction will get you that. (PED’s in this case also include Adderall, a commonly prescribed ADHD medication taken daily by millions.) Given Brady’s obvious multi-step manipulation of league rules (lobbying for more control of the balls, then using that control to cheat), and then his bald-face lying about it, it’s hard for me to consider a first-offense Adderall conviction more egregious than long-term gaming-of-the-system.

We might also ask who else has gotten a four game suspension in recent years. Terrelle Pryor comes to mind. Pryor was suspended for five games -- the first five of his career -- for financial violations while he was still a student at Ohio State. That is, he was not an NFL player, was not a member of the NFLPA, and was not even registered for the NFL draft when he committed strictly NCAA violations (i.e. not criminal laws). And yet, the NFL saddled him with a longer suspension than Brady is currently fighting.

More recently, Browns GM Ray Farmer has been suspended for four games for sending text messages to the sideline during games. (Texts which, by all accounts, gave the Browns no competitive advantage). Farmer broke the rule because, as he put it, "my emotions got the better of me." He took full responsibility and seemed genuinely remorseful – embarrassed that he had cost the team credibility, and willing to serve whatever sentence the league handed down. If that’s what merits a four game suspension, then how does Brady’s inside-the-lines cheating not?

And while we’re at it, we should probably admit it's easier to respect Farmer’s dignity and shame when compared to Brady’s deceit and stonewalling of the investigation, as well as Bob Kraft’s arrogant demands for apologies. How anyone can paint these guys as victims remains a mystery to me.

"Brady’s a superstar – you can’t suspend a Hall-of-Famer…"

Anyone even beginning to make this claim needs to read up on league history, specifically on Paul Hornung, Alex Karras, and 1963. Hornung, a Heisman trophy winning quarterback from Notre Dame, former first overall draft pick, and star halfback and kicker on Vince Lombardi’s Packers (a man whose nickname was literally, "Golden Boy") was as talented, popular, and respected as they come. Karras was an All-Pro defensive lineman on the Lions, who was popular and charismatic enough to have a fairly successful post-football acting career (notably as Mongo in Blazing Saddles, and the father on the sitcom, Webster). Both were suspended for an entire year for gambling on games (Pete Rose style -- betting on your own team to win, rather than betting on a loss and then throwing a game). Several other players were implicated in the scandal and fined, but only Hornung and Karras were suspended, because their behavior was ongoing.

It was the highest penalty Pete Rozelle could administer short of banishing them forever (like Rose), and the implication was clear: no one is above the law.

As an epilogue, Hornung went on to the Hall of Fame. The Packers went on to dominate the decade. Karras went into acting. The NFL went on to much greater heights. And gambling never really became a league problem. That’s how you cut off a potential cancer – firmly, decisively, and fairly.

Goodell’s failure to do the job after Spygate led New England to believe they could get away with skirting the rules again. Anyone who claims that the current punishment doesn’t fit the crime needs to decide if they want to follow a sport where chronic cheaters get championships. I know I don’t.

"They’re coming down harder on Brady because he’s a star (and maybe because everyone’s jealous of him)…"

Let’s dispose with the weird passive-aggressive school-girl self-congratulation of that last part right away. Anyone jealous of the Patriots' success has never been to Heinz Field. Moreover, in a country in which a teacher can work for 100 years without making anywhere close to what Brady makes in one season to play a ball game, anyone who says "you’re just jealous" is really saying "you should probably punch me in the jaw." But that’s less of a "Brady" thing than an "America" thing. And it’s not what’s important here. Because, while there's probably nothing truly "unjust" that the league could do to someone as privileged as Tom Brady (and, while I think the idiots who are fundraising to pay off the team’s $1m "Bob Kraft’s pocket-change" fine are deeply misguided in their personal value systems), I don’t mind the notion that Goodell is coming down harder on Brady because he’s a star. In fact, I’m glad to see it; it indicates not just a demand for responsibility but also a backdoor sense of fairness. And there’s precedent for that as well.

When the league finally realized it needed to put on a show about concussion safety, they probably should have targeted Brandon Meriweather. Meriweather was a noted headhunter with a record of late-hits and small fines; his highlight real is a veritable clinic on how to leave your feet, lead with the crown of your helmet, and knock the other guy out. Meriweather did get fined on the league’s crackdown weekend in 2010, but he wasn’t made the example. James Harrison was. Harrison was fined significantly more ($75k to $50k) and his punishment was a much wider discussion. This despite Harrison being flagged for none of the hits he delivered that day; despite his not leaving his feet ("launching") at either ball-carrier the league accused him of targeting; despite one of Harrison’s hits (to college teammate Josh Cribbs) not even coming against a defenseless receiver (i.e. it would still be considered legal today); despite the league selling photos of the other hit (on Mohamed Massaquoi) on its own merch website; and despite how much cleaner his record was than Meriweather’s. Why was Harrison made the league’s target? Because he was a bigger star. He was a perennial All-Pro just two years removed from a DPOY season in which he’d made one of the great plays in Super Bowl history. Everyone knew who James Harrison was. So, if you wanted to put on a high-profile show about how you were taking this stuff seriously, he was the guy to go after.

We can argue about whether that was fair to do to James Harrison (*answer: not if OL can still hold him like they do), but I think we all understand why it was done: to make sure everyone saw. And if it was done to James back then, you can’t claim that it’s beyond the pale to employ the same logic to Brady today. Success has its disadvantages, and one of them is closer scrutiny. It comes with the territory. If Brady didn’t know that before, he’s learning now.

"Deflated footballs weren’t a big factor in the Patriots’ success (especially in that AFC Title Game)…"

The Patriots beat Oakland by 7 in 2015, and they swept the Jets by a combined total of 3 points. Those three wins are the difference between home field advantage and losing out on their division to the Buffalo Bills. Then they beat Baltimore in the Divisional Round by 4, on a cold cold day, when a deflated football might have helped quite a bit. If a better grip on the ball is equal to just one completed pass, perhaps on a third down, perhaps on a scoring drive, then it’s fair to ask if the Patriots would have even been playing against Indianapolis if they had stayed within the rules.

But those consequentialist arguments miss the point. Tapping McGovern’s phone at the Watergate building wasn’t a big factor in Nixon’s crushing victory over him in 1972 either. "It turned out I didn’t even need to have done it" is not an alibi. Did New England do something illegal to gain a competitive advantage? Then they cheated. Period.

"Nobody ever cared about ball preparation until this story – it’s a manufactured scandal…"

If no one ever cared about ball preparation, what was Brady doing lobbying to get access to game balls back in 2006? Just because the sports wonks didn’t notice this particular loophole in the rules doesn’t mean that no one did. And it certainly doesn’t mean that Brady missed it himself…

"Tom Brady’s one of the good guys – he deserves the benefit of the doubt…"

Is there anyone left who still believes that's true? Next.

"This was a sting operation – the league should have warned the Patriots they were looking instead of setting them up to get busted…"

Sting operations don’t work if you don’t break the law. A speed trap is only a speed trap if you’re speeding.

Those who argue that the league should have warned the Patriots not to break the rules can refer to the Hornung/Karras article linked above. In it, Pete Rozelle says that all teams are warned not to gamble on games. Hornung and Karras knew the rules and broke them. The same logic applies here.

Importantly, this isn’t the same as a referee telling a cornerback, "watch your hands or I’m going to call PI next time." That ref is warning the DB about his own interpretation of the rules, which might differ from the officials the team faced last week. In this case, the rules were black and white, and Brady knew them – hell, he participated in writing them up. No one owed him a warning shot.

"This was circumstantial evidence – there’s nowhere near enough actual proof to convict…"

This rests on deliberate misunderstanding of legal language. When Wells writes that it is "more probable than not" that Brady is guilty, that’s the language of civil law (Wells is a civil lawyer). And it holds up in court, civil or criminal. Brady’s former teammate Aaron Hernandez can attest to that. There’s no film of Hernandez pulling a trigger to end Odin Lloyd’s life, and Hernandez has not confessed. But there is a "preponderance of evidence" that he’s guilty. That’s why the former tight end is in prison. To get hung up on the lack of a confession or a smoking gun is to misunderstand the way argument and investigation work.

But more importantly, Brady’s refusal to turn over his texts or emails (even with his attorney screening them) is his own fault. If there is nothing incriminating there then turning those over would have cleared his name and all of this would go away. Brady’s refusal to participate (and Kraft’s refusal to allow the equipment managers to even know Wells wanted a follow-up interview) declares one of three things: either (a) Brady and Kraft knew that they’d be busted if they complied; or (b) Brady and Kraft believed they were too important to bother with some investigation; or (c) both.

Whatever the case, noncompliance is not a good way to establish character credibility, especially when your organization has a bad reputation and there’s evidence against you.

"You can’t punish someone for anything less than a total conviction…"

Ask Ben Roethlisberger about NFL sanctions that come on the heels of unproven accusations. When Roethlisberger was suspended (for six games initially), his crime wasn’t sexual assault. That was the accusation, but when Roethlisberger maintained his innocence, and the DA and Georgia Bureau of Investigations decided there wasn’t enough evidence to charge him and proceed with a trial, that was the end of the legal matter. The suspension came because the quarterback had sullied the NFL brand – he’d embarrassed the league and the bad press was bigger than league execs expected.

Did the NFL believe they’d seen proof enough to suspend Big Ben for sexual assault? I sure hope not – because if they did, a 4-6 game seat is a criminally weak penalty for a rapist. Instead, the league felt it had a preponderance of evidence that Ben had been irresponsible and recklessly immature. He was acting like a jerk and had made everyone look bad. That’s what they suspended him for. That was all they had and that was all they needed.

"This is unprecedented – no one’s ever gotten this type of punishment before…"

It's true, no one's ever received this precise sanction before. But then again, no one’s ever lobbied for a rule change, then levied that rule change into systematic cheating for an indefinite number of years, leading to at least one Super Bowl title, after previously winning three championships that also came with the help of illegal manipulation. So there isn’t a preordained course of action on this. Anything the league did in this case was technically going to be "unprecedented." This criticism is empty. Next.

"This is a unique overreaction by a league that inexplicably wants to ruin one of the singular talents and great stories of this era…"

This is where Sean Payton comes back.

Some context: in 2011, Payton was a young, up-and-coming offensive genius, whose Saints had risen from the soggy ashes of Hurricane Katrina to win Super Bowl XLIV (a feel-good story, complete with the tragedy of a fallen hero, ALS sufferer Steve Gleason, an underdog superstar, the "too-short," "washed-up" Drew Brees, and a cast of no-name soldiers who rose up when the team needed them). If ever there was an inspiring NFL fairy-tale worth protecting, the rise of Sean Payton’s Saints is it.

Then it came out that Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams had been offering small-money bonuses to his players if they delivered violent (but legal) hits that knocked opponents out of games. That is, the crime in Bountygate was not about illegal cheap-shot violence, but bonus salary.

Now, the ethics of intending to injure are pretty clear – it’s horrifyingly wrong. And Williams deserved severe sanction for some of his pronouncements ("kill the head" probably should have gotten him a suspension with or without the money). But even at his worst, Williams wasn’t actually encouraging his players to break any rules -- he never directed players to poke an opponent's eye out in a scrum, or sharpen their cleats (a la Ty Cobb); he payed them incentives to hit as hard as they could. Take away the money and I suspect most NFL types would likely see this as a case of "a coach going a little too far." As often as we hear the word "violent" used as a compliment to a linebacker or safety, Williams exhorting his players to hurt opponents seems a short leap from John Madden applauding a "decleater" or Hines Ward delivering a crack-back block to Ed Reed. Without the extra money, this is just football turned up to 11.

That said, as much as Bountygate could be considered a crime, Payton (unlike Brady) was apparently not a party to it, and the Saints organization (unlike the Patriots) did not have a record of convictions for similar rule infractions. And yet, their penalty was a full-year suspension for Payton (under the condescending aegis that "ignorance is not an excuse"); a full-year suspension for General Manager Mickey Loomis (for reasons I’ve never fully understood); an indefinite suspension for Williams (which wound up being one year also); a partial year suspension for linebacker’s coach Joe Vitt (the de-facto next-man-in-charge); and year-long suspensions (later overturned) for several veteran players, as well as two draft picks and a fine. Note that Payton was also the team’s Offensive Coordinator, therefore the league suspended the head coach, both coordinators, the GM, the logical interim coach, and several veteran players -- the entire leadership structure of a team. This is the closest the NFL has ever come to the NCAA death penalty.

Did the Saints bounty program pervert both the letter and spirit of NFL law? Yes. Did they deserve to get punished for it? Yes. Did they gain a competitive advantage from their actions? Maybe, but only inasmuch as violent hitting is deemed an unfair competitive advantage (in which case, we should probably sort out our feelings for Dick Butkis, Jack Lambert, and Ronnie Lott).

The NFL came down spectacularly hard on the Saints – much more severely than it came down on the New England Patriots. To claim that the Patriots' penalty (a re-upping of their own punishment from their previous cheating scandal, plus a short suspension for the apparent mastermind of the current cheating scandal) has been unprecedented or unfair or extreme is to forget how scapegoated Payton and Loomis must have felt, and how wildly the commissioner's bullets sprayed through the Saints' facility just three years ago. It's also to ignore Brady's lying and obstructionism, and Kraft's ongoing bafoonery. There is a precedent here on how the league deals with a team-wide culture of corruption. The difference is that the Patriots, despite their best efforts to offend, got off a whole lot lighter than their southern counterparts.


If anyone thinks that the league came down inexplicably hard on Brady and the Patriots, the onus is on them to explain why cheating and then lying about it is less egregious than using one's cell phone at an inappropriate time.

If anyone believes the Patriots organization is being unfairly tied to a scandal that only a few rouges perpetrated, the onus is on them to explain why Sean Payton deserved punishment but Bill Belicheck (who’s been coated with Teflon through this ordeal) doesn’t.

If anyone thinks that Brady is probably guilty of some funny business but the league shouldn’t hold him out of four whole games, the onus is on them to explain why Payton and Mickey Loomis sat for a combined thirty-two; or why Pryor started his career in his living room for over a month.

If anyone thinks that another round of the fines-and-draft-picks cocktail New England was served after Spygate would be potent enough to ensure that the team straightens up, the onus is on them to explain how an organization that knew the league was looking over its shoulder could find the nerve to knowingly break the rules again; what part of Bob Kraft's clownish apology demands led them to believe it; and why any of us would expect that that kind of diet sanction would work the second time around, when it apparently didn't work in the first.

And finally, if anyone thinks that the Patriots deserve the benefit of the doubt, or that the NFL overreached in unthinkable new ways, or that this whole discussion about ball preparation is a manufactured scandal no one should care about, they have some explaining to do to a lot more people than me.

If Tom Brady somehow weasels out of responsibility for this, when Bell, Hornung, Karras, Harrison, Pryor, Farmer, Roethlisberger, Payton, and the whole Saints leadership structure couldn't, then I don’t know why any player, coach, executive, or fan would ever respect the league's integrity again. That degree of favoritism would be the first truly unprecedented thing to come out of this story.

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