National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell answered the biggest question of the offseason by issuing a four-game suspension to quarterback Tom Brady and handing down a $1 million fine to the New England Patriots that equaled the largest in the sport’s history.
Goodell’s decision faced added scrutiny in the wake of his handling -- or mishandling -- of several domestic violence cases last year, most notably the incident that involved former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.
“This punishment sends a pretty serious message to the Patriots and the rest of the league,” said Corinne Farneti, an assistant professor of sport management at Maryland’s Mount St. Mary’s University.
NFL Vice President of Football Operations Troy Vincent was given the task of issuing the discipline in the controversy over whether the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs they supplied and used in last season’s conference championship win that sent them to the Super Bowl. Yet former Green Bay Packers executive Andrew Brandt, who is now an analyst for ESPN, said for those who think Vincent “did this without Goodell consent and decree, good luck with that.”
A two-time NFL Most Valuable Player, Brady was hit with a four-game ban for conduct detrimental to the integrity of the league after an investigation found he was “at least generally aware” that two Patriots staffers had deflated game balls to below the league’s minimum air pressure. Vincent said in a letter to Brady that all players, no matter how accomplished or respected they are, have an obligation to comply by the rules and must be held accountable for their actions when rules are violated and the “public’s confidence in the game is called into question.”
While the three-month investigation headed by New York attorney Ted Wells concluded Patriots coach Bill Belichick and owner Robert Kraft were unaware that game balls had been tampered with after being approved by NFL officials, the team on Monday was stripped of a first-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth-round selection in 2017 in addition to its $1 million fine.
Goodell, who is close friends with Kraft, said in a statement that the decisions were reached after extensive discussions with Vincent and many other league executives. The commissioner said the league relied on the critical importance of protecting the integrity of the game and the thoroughness and independence of the Wells report. Kraft said in a statement that while the team intended to accept any discipline levied by the league, the punishment “far exceeded any reasonable expectation” and was based on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence.
“Roger Goodell’s relationship with owner Robert Kraft adds a layer of intrigue,” Farneti said in an e-mail. “If the commish is willing to punish one of his buddies, other teams must take note. Or, it is possible that Goodell knew there would be extra scrutiny because of their friendship, so there is no way he could let the Patriots off easy after the year he’s had.”
Ahead of the Super Bowl, Goodell said the 2014 season had been personally difficult.
Rice’s case -- in which he was seen on video knocking out his now-wife -- was the most publicized of several domestic abuse incidents involving NFL players and led to protests outside games and calls from women’s groups for Goodell’s ouster. While New York Giants President John Mara and Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II said the matter “tarnished the reputation” of the NFL, owners supported Goodell, who hired five women to help shape a stricter personal-conduct policy that was instituted by the league.
Rice initially was suspended two games by Goodell, who then issued an indefinite ban after hotel surveillance video was made public. Rice’s suspension was lifted in November after an arbitrator ruled in his favor.
Goodell’s indefinite suspension of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson that followed his conviction in an abuse case involving his 4-year-old son also was overturned in February.
Brady will appeal his suspension, according to his agent, Donald Yee, who called the discipline ridiculous and with no legitimate basis. Brandt said he expects the NFL Players Association to request an independent arbitrator to hear the appeal.
“If the hearing officer is completely independent and neutral, I am very confident the Wells Report will be exposed as an incredibly frail exercise in fact-finding and logic,” Yee said in a statement. “The NFL has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that often are overturned when truly independent and neutral judges or arbitrators preside, and a former federal judge has found the commissioner has abused his discretion in the past, so this outcome does not surprise me.”
Brandt and fellow ESPN analyst Jeff Saturday said the length of the ban and sanctions against the team were probably mainly due to a lack of cooperation.
Vincent, in his letter to the Patriots, mentioned an important consideration was the extent to which the team and “relevant individuals” cooperated with the investigation.
“The first-round and fourth-round picks and then the four games straight out the gate, it seems it’s the actions after the deflation as opposed to the act of deflating,” said Saturday, a former Pro Bowl center who played 14 years in the NFL.
Former Washington Redskins and Houston Texans General Manager Charley Casserly, who’s now an analyst for the NFL Network, said the Patriots got off easy.
“This is the NFL, this is who you work for,” Casserly said. “I can’t imagine they say ‘X’ and you don’t give it to them. To me, when you fail to comply with a request, you’ve given them a free shot to do what they want.”
Brady’s suspension, without pay, is equal to the penalty a first-time offender would receive for using a steroid, stimulant, human growth hormone or other banned substance.
“That’s just ridiculous,” NFL punter Steve Weatherford said via Twitter. “They are comparing it to steroid use. Preposterous!”
Former receiver Keyshawn Johnson, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, said Brady deserved an eight-game suspension.
“He knew what was going on,” Johnson said. “It’s more about the lying, trying to deceive us, making us believe that he didn’t do it.”
Former NFL linebacker Shawne Merriman applauded the suspension, saying on Twitter that now everyone knows “that NOBODY is above the system.” Phillip Buchanon, a former first-round draft pick who played 10 NFL seasons, called the Patriots habitual rule breakers and said it’s the reason they win Super Bowl titles.
“They lose a million dollars, which is nothing to an NFL franchise, and a first-round draft pick but they still got a championship,” Buchanon wrote on Twitter.