DeflateGate. A term with will forever live in infamy as one of the most bizarre "controversies" in sports history. The circus that has developed surrounding the pounds per square inch of a football is representative of both the media's infatuation with all things football and the NFL's curious modus operandi concerning the enforcement of its rules. Fans, unfortunately, have been bombarded with rhetoric regarding the Commissioner Goodell's decision to impose what seems to be a rather harsh penalty on the Patriots and Tom Brady, leaving their opinions molded without a understanding of how the league's rules work. What follows is a brief synopsis of the NFL's rules regarding Commissioner Goodell's authority in these matters and an analysis of the logic behind the punishment.
Article 8.13(A)(4), of the NFL Constitution provides that the Commissioner has complete authority "In cases involving a violation of the competitive aspects of the game." Yes, the evidence in the Wells Report on the surface seems very underwhelming. The conclusion is, at best, incomplete. Yet, the NFL inflicted a punishment that included a $1,000,000 fine and the docking of two draft picks, including a first-rounder. Unlike a criminal or civil case which impose "beyond a reasonable doubt" and "preponderance of the evidence" standards, respectively, the NFL seemingly has free range in its standard of proof analysis. Thus, regardless of the lack of convincing evidence in the report, Goodell was able to deem the Patriots "guilty" and impose a penalty he felt was deserved.
It is important to note that the punishment was not exclusive to the DeflateGate scandal, but rather "prior record" was taken into account during the NFL's assessment. Although it may not seem fair that unrelated incidents could be molded together to enhance the punishment, it is completely within the NFL's rules and considering the Patriots are repeat offenders in their circumvention of those rules, it should come to no surprise that the NFL took this approach.
Article 8.13 also covers the punishment imposed on the Patriots gunslinger Tom Brady, allowing for the same Commissioner authority when a player is "guilty of conduct detrimental to the welfare of the League." Make no mistake; the league did not hand down a four game suspension because Brady broke the rules. Although the deflation was the incident that instigated the investigation, Brady's handling of the situation exacerbated the severity of just how detrimental his conduct was. Although the Super Bowl was right around the corner, after emerging victorious, publicly admitting his part in the incident would surely lessened the severity of his conduct in the league's eyes.
Player's are constantly hit with fines and other penalties for their part in an incident that amounts to "conduct detrimental." The drafting of such vague language is done so with a purpose. The ambiguity surrounding the parameters of what amounts to conduct detrimental and what acts are more or less detrimental gives the league almost absolute power when protecting itself.
The fact that Tom Brady is constantly in the spotlight and the Patriots are the League's most successful team of the last 15 years, actually works against them in this case. The more notable a player and team are, the more detrimental the negative conduct will be on the NFL. If the facts surrounding DeflateGate were exactly the same except the culprit was Mike Glennon and the team was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it would be tough to argue that the potential detriment to the league was of the same magnitude.
The very rules set in place to protect the league, its teams and its owners came back to bite the Patriots, but don't expect Robert Kraft to lead the charge in the overturning of the Commissioner's complete authority in these matters. The League continues to grow at an incredible pace and "protecting the shield" is at the top of the list on the owners' agenda. "Complete Authority" under Article 8.13 is the the owners' greatest weapon in pursuit of that protection.