Why is it that when the National Football League concludes that the New England Patriots intentionally deflated footballs to a level more to their quarterback’s liking in the AFC Championship Game, the team is fined a million dollars, two draft picks, and Tom Brady gets a four-game suspension, but when a little league team from Chicago is found to have included players from outside of their district, they get their national title revoked?
The Patriots went on to win the Super Bowl, and they will keep their rings. Jackie Robinson West lost in the World Championship, and ended up having everything they did win taken from them.
In light of the punishment handed down to Brady and the Patriots (which can still be challenged), a lot of people are pointing out the absurdity that Brady is suspended for four games while Ray Rice, who knocked his girlfriend unconscious, was first struck with only a two-game suspension. The comparison might also be made to Josh Gordon, who is suspended for the entire season for violating the rules of a substance abuse program.
To get a picture of the (dis)order of things, here is a list of recent sport suspensions:
1. Ray Rice, 2 games — for beating his girlfriend
2. Ndamukong Suh, 2 games — for stomping on a lineman
3. Tom Brady, 4 games — for cheating in the AFC Championship Game
4. Terrelle Pryor, 5 games — for receiving “improper benefits” while at Ohio State
5. Josh Gordon, 1 season — for violating a substance-abuse policy
6. Michael Vick, 2 seasons — for involvement in dog fighting
You can check out this list of NFL suspensions for more information, but even the brief menu above should point out the ridiculousness of the disciplinary process in American sports, at least in the NFL. (I think the NBA does a fairer job.) To look at this list, we’d have to conclude that K.O.-ing your girlfriend is equal to stepping on another player on the field, and both are only half as bad as cheating on your way to the Super Bowl. These are each less serious than receiving “illegal” gifts from your university, and substantially less serious than stumbling in your addiction to alcohol. Dog fighting is, apparently, worst of all.
This is bonkers. This is bananas. This is professional sports in America.
The evidence is pretty convincing that Tom Brady knew, at a minimum, that something fishy was going on with game balls. Text messages, special favors and gifts, missing balls: read the “Investigative Report on A.F.C. Championship Game Footballs” to get a flavor. And while it’s probably true that the Patriots would have won the AFC and the Super Bowl whether balls had been deflated or not, that’s not the point — the point is that they cheated, even if they didn’t need to. Clearly, a penalty had to be dealt.
I don’t pretend to know what that penalty should be, but I do think precedents need to be set and followed. Justice can’t be random. The law cannot be applied unevenly, case-by-case; it should be applied equally to all.
The punishment for the Patriots, however, is barely a spanking. Forbes Magazine reported that in 2013 the New England Patriots were worth $2.6 billion with $428 million in revenue. What good is a million dollar fine in light of such staggering numbers? Is that — is a four-game suspension or a couple of draft picks (one next year, one in 2017) — supposed to dissuade teams from cheating?
And I come back to my original question. Why does this penalty seem hardly penalizing at all, while a bunch of 13-year-old kids who won the Little League World Series for Chicago get their name traipsed through the mud and their trophy taken away because their coaches — not them — took kids from too wide a geographic swathe? We’re punishing little leaguers more harshly than we’re punishing complicit adults on their way to a Super Bowl. Something’s not right.
The answer, I think, is plain cunning hypocrisy.
The NFL is an enormous money-maker. It is an economy unto itself. And the Shield is hungry for cash.
Prepubescent kids on the South Side of Chicago, however, aren’t a real cash cow for television networks or the governing body of American little league, or for anybody, really.
It is easy to punish kids when it won’t cost you anything. It is much harder to punish a money machine like a professional football team. What it comes down to, perhaps, is that by punishing the money-makers, we’re punishing ourselves. If the NFL were to give the Patriots a penalty that actually hurt, it’d be draining green from its own pocket.
Shame on us, then, for our hypocrisy. Shame on us for our greed. And, yeah, shame on us for cheating, and building a culture that feels cheating is a worthy price to pay for the chance to be on top.