This wasn't punishment for illegal footballs. It was a condemnation of the Patriot Way.
Somewhere along the line, the debate over what happened in the hours and minutes leading up to the AFC championship game in January went beyond air pressure and weather conditions, and became a referendum on the character of Tom Brady and his franchise. That much is clear in the letter that Troy Vincent, the NFL's vice president of operations, sent to Brady on Monday, which assails him for undermining the "integrity" and "public confidence" in the sport. Nobody would jump all the way to that level of criticism for similar crimes, like warming up a few footballs on a cold sideline.
No, legal precedent is not what this is about. It's about character precedent.
The league conveyed exactly that in its decision, which suspended Brady for four games and fined the Patriots $1 million and two future draft picks. The NFL clearly indicated that the Patriots' prior sketchiness in the 2007 Spygate scandal came into play in this decision.
"Here, there are several factors that merit strong consideration in assessing discipline," the league stated. "The first is the club's prior record." So even though head coach Bill Belichick was not found to be complicit in this situation, his actions back then hovered over what happened in January.
So did Brady's unwillingness to "cooperate fully and candidly with the investigation," in Vincent's words. It was clear from the quarterback's vague and indirect responses in his initial news conference on deflate-gate that he was slipping into truthiness. He is now being punished for that as much as for any "more probable than not" deflating of footballs. The "court of law" argument doesn't apply here. It's the "court of NFL law," and Brady was held in contempt.
Commissioner Roger Goodell will get the bulk of the wrath from Pats backers, and there is an argument to be made that this decision will hurt the "public confidence" as much as what Brady may have done, but Vincent's role here shouldn't be diminished. He sent a loud signal that the league has embraced a new moral code. The standards for behavior, on and off the field, are far higher now. Vincent feels a job in the NFL is a precious privilege never to be stained by substandard ethics – even in the case of one of the most beloved players of all time.
"Each player," Vincent wrote, "no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public's confidence in the game is called into question."
The NFL Way is more visible than ever now. It was made clear in the harsh treatment of the Cleveland Browns for their texting scandal and even in the discipline of the Atlanta Falcons for their crowd-noise pumping. Those were eye-popping punishments and they proved a tell for what happened to the Patriots. The precedent was not past equipment fraud; it was past shadiness.
This is why it feels so personal here. The Patriots come off as overly clever, using the rules as a lever rather than obeying them. It was Brady who jabbed the Baltimore Ravens after an AFC playoff game in January, telling the media, "Those guys gotta study the rule book and figure it out." That was in reference to Belichick's use of different formations and substitutions without giving John Harbaugh time to adjust. Was it within the rules? Yes it was. But was it within the spirit of the rules? That question leads us to this scandal and this decision.
Do the Patriots abide by the spirit of the rules? Did Brady abide by the spirit of this investigation? The league's decision flashes a strong answer: no.
Brady didn't help his own cause. Telling the world he didn't know equipment manager Jim McNally, or that he had only 30 hours to digest a report everyone else read immediately, is insulting to the intelligence. It's all basically a dare, just like Patriots owner Robert Kraft's demand of an apology from the commissioner even before the investigation was complete. It was poking the bear, and on Monday the bear poked back.
There will be debate over whether Brady's legacy is tarnished. There isn't much chance of that. He is either the greatest ever to play his position or one of the greatest. That has not changed with this. But the league felt its own reputation was tarnished because of how likely rule-breaking overshadowed a game that decided a trip to the Super Bowl. Vincent and the commissioner surely were concerned about what the world thought of the NFL, especially in the wake of a horrendous string of poor decisions on discipline last year.
It is not known, and may never be known, if rules were broken. But there was perceived risk of the league's reputation being broken. And when given a decision between a scar on the NFL's reputation and a scar on the Patriots' reputation, the choice was quite easy for the league.
And whether Pats fans like it or not, it was Brady who helped the league make that choice.