The pushing of boundaries is an irrevocable part of NFL football. Teams try to get every competitive advantage imaginable; sometimes they get caught and sometimes they don't. But this isn't the New England Patriots' first time getting caught. In 2007, following "Spygate," they were fined $750,000 and lost a first round draft pick. And now there's "Deflategate," a football deflating controversy swept under the rug until the Superbowl and NFL Draft wrapped up.
The Wells Report was released this week, implicating a Patriots locker room attendant, a Patriots assistant equipment manager, and at least in part, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The report was commissioned by the NFL, and it's the result of an exhaustive, months-long investigation. While his agent publicly ridiculed the report, it's clear Brady exerted his influence, at least to some degree. He may not have witnessed the actual deflation of balls, but he sure made his preferences known.
Luckily the Patriots aren't alone in this mess. Both the Atlanta Falcons and the Cleveland Browns incurred cheating-related punishment from the NFL this off-season. Roddy White - the Falcons' former director of event marketing, not the receiver - orchestrated the piping in of crowd noise at the Georgia Dome over the past two seasons. It was boundary pushing that didn't yield any measurable, positive results. Even so, the Falcons cheated by proxy, and they incurred a relatively mild punishment in early April:
- Forfeiture of a 5th round draft pick in 2016;
- Fine of $350,000; and
- Team President Rich McKay was suspended from the league's competition committee, a group he heads, for three months.
It's now time for the NFL to impose some form of punishment on the Patriots. Most observers don't think the Patriots will incur a punishment similar to the one they endured following "Spygate." There seems to be a lot of emphasis on how the league will treat Brady. Will they suspend him for the Steelers-Patriots week one game? Will any punishment specifically directed at Brady tarnish his image?
One thing is clear: the NFL must act fairly. If they hand down a punishment similar to the one given to the Falcons, heads will roll. There are noteworthy difference between the two cases. First, the Patriots' controversy directly implicates the face of their franchise. Second, they are repeat offenders. The league's overriding bias will be patently obvious if they hold back. To appease the other 31 teams, they may just do the right thing and hit the Patriots where it hurts. That, of course, remains to be seen.