What Deflategate Means for Tom Brady, the Patriots, and the NFL

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Tom Brady holds the Super Bowl XLIX MVP trophy during a Chevrolet Super Bowl XLIX MVP press on February 2, 2015.Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images

After months of speculation, the Deflategate hammer finally dropped on Wednesday, mostly on the more-probably-guilty-than-not Tom Brady and his middle-aged, text-loving ball handlers. But aside from yesterday’s Schadenfreude over Brady’s Ugg-gifting, what will the Deflategate report actually mean for the Patriots, Brady, and professional football? NFL officials are still deciding how to respond to the report, including possible fines and punishments for all those involved, while in the court of public opinion, Brady seems likely to be convicted either way. 

USA Today’s Chris Chase believes any hit Brady’s legacy takes is one he had coming:

It’s reasonable to assume Brady didn’t think it was cheating, just getting a little home-field cooking, the same way the Giants used to control the wind at The Meadowlands or Red Auerbach would crank up the heat at the Boston Garden. But nobody had to answer for that, while Brady stood up in front of media members after the AFC championship and basically laughed off any wrongdoing. Brady doesn’t get to make that call. It appears he cheated and he did it knowingly. He should, and will, get suspended (probably for 2-4 games) because he knew the deflation of balls was against the rules and apparently stayed involved with it anyway. Cheating isn’t a zero-sum game like some believe. There can be degrees of it and Brady is probably at the lower end, but it’s cheating nonetheless.

Meanwhile, at Vox, Joseph Stromberg unpacks the distrust many feel toward the Patriots:

People aren’t upset because the Patriots may have won [the game in question] by under-inflating their balls. They’re upset because the Patriots have been remarkably dominant for 15 years — but during that time, have consistently pushed the envelope in terms of rules, and on at least one other occasion, have been caught cheating. If the team habitually under-inflates its game balls, it could provide a very real advantage — something that may have, in some cases, been the difference between a loss and a win.

Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman agrees:

[T]his is serious is in-game cheating. The fact that the Patriots would have beaten the Colts regardless doesn’t lessen that fact. That’s not the point. The point is, if it wasn’t a competitive edge, if Brady didn’t know it would be, then why would they do it? The NFL can’t have players and teams simply re-engineering the rules as they see fit.

Expanding on that point, longtime sports agent Leigh Steinberg insists that the scandal does and should matter:

[P]rofessional sports are venerated because of the understanding by the fans and press that they are watching real contests, with uniform equipment and rules. Games are decided by coaching decisions, schemes and genuine athletic skill and desire. This is why fans invest time and money in manifold ways to support the sport. Once this central proposition comes into question a sport risks being seen as a scripted and predetermined entertainment like wrestling.

But The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch isn’t so sure about the magnitude of Deflategate, beyond the sheer spectacle:

Cell-phone records, video surveillance, Princeton physicists, two hundred and forty-three pages? What exactly was the point of all of this? Even in the most heated days of the national Deflategate obsession, nearly everyone agreed that Tom Brady could have been throwing shot putts and still beat the Colts. Former players who weren’t busy expressing outrage were coming forward to point out the many ways in which footballs have been tweaked over the years by quarterbacks to suit their preferences or to gain an advantage. If the N.F.L. was so serious about the integrity of its footballs, then why did it allow each team to supply its own?

This report, despite its headline findings, has enough ambiguity in it to leave all factions satisfied. Diehard New England fans will continue to defend the Pats to the end. Most everyone else was already convinced that they were cheaters, whether, like true Pats haters, they were calling for blood or else, being cynics, they simply shrugged: “They want to win real bad. So, sometimes you do stuff that’s not fair, so that you can win,” the comedian Louis C.K. told David Letterman. “I think it’s hilarious. I mean, why not? It’s a stupid football game.”

And it’s not like the integrity of the NFL has been on the up and up recently. Deadspin’s Kyle Wagner underlines that point:

The NFL, having ducked and dodged the many, varied complaints about the criminal behavior of its players, its own far-reaching municipal extortion schemes, and the long-term health effects of the game it promotes, has now released an independently gathered 243-page report on the matter of Tom Brady’s balls and their consistency during last year’s AFC championship game.

And as the New York Times’ Nick Corasaniti has noted, the Deflategate epic is more than twice as extensive as the report the NFL commissioned last year about NFL player Ray Rice’s domestic abuse. Indeed, compared to how this year’s recent No. 1 draft pick has faced rape allegations, or how the Seattle Seahawks didn’t dig too deep into whether or not their top draft pick knocked out his girlfriend, the issue of Tom Brady’s ball pressure seems decidedly overinflated.