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The Real Problem With Tom Brady's Deflategate Suspension

By imposing a harsher penalty to Tom Brady than it does criminal offenders, the NFL has shown its true colors.
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Clockwise, from left: Tom Brady (Photo: Beth Hart/Flickr); Ray Rice (Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr); Plaxico Burress (Photo: Jeffrey Beall/FLickr); and Ben Roethlisberger. (Photo: Andy McLemore/Flickr).

Clockwise, from left: Tom Brady (Photo: Beth Hart/Flickr); Ray Rice (Photo: Keith Allison/Flickr); Plaxico Burress (Photo: Jeffrey Beall/FLickr); and Ben Roethlisberger. (Photo: Andy McLemore/Flickr).

On Monday, ESPN reported that the National Football League has suspended New England Patriots quarterback and Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady for the first four games of the season for his role in deflating footballs used during championship games. The NFL also fined the Patriots $1 million and revoked two of the team's top draft picks as part of the team's punishment for the "deflategate" scandal, according to ESPN.

While Patriots fans lost their collective minds over what they perceived as an overly harsh punishment, others saw a huge problem with the NFL's handling of deflategate: Brady's punishment is twice as long as the initial two-game suspension handed down to Ray Rice in 2014 for brutally beating his then-fiancee in a hotel elevator.

On its own, the double standard is troubling. But when Brady's suspension is compared to past notable suspensions in NFL history, one trend is clear: The NFL's judgment isn't just inconsistent; it reflects a strange, twisted standard as to what constitutes morally wrong behavior in the eyes of the league. Take a look at how Brady's punishment stacks up (with thanks to Deadspin's post-Ray Rice list of notable NFL suspensions):

(Chart: Jared Keller/Datawrapper)

(Chart: Jared Keller/Datawrapper)

It's not just the comparison to Ray Rice's domestic abuse (marked in the lighter shade of green in the first chart) that's cause for concern. After all, Rice's suspension was eventually extended to a year. That sexual assault allegations and a weapons charge—stemming from a player literally shooting himself in the leg—are the other two instances to earn four-game suspensions is a real red flag for the NFL's justice system. Those are objectively more serious issues that demand to be treated far more severely than infractions like rough tactics or cheating.

Here are the details of the other two incidents: The NFL hit Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger with a six-game suspension, later dropped to four, after a 20-year-old college student accused him of sexual assault at a nightclub in 2010. Roethlisberger had previously been accused of sexual assault in 2008. The charges were eventually dropped, but Goodell and the league justified suspending Roethlisberger in a letter citing the "inherent danger" of the quarterback's alleged behavior.

The second case involves Plaxico Burress, who was charged with illegal possession of a weapon after shooting himself in the leg at a nightclub in November 2008. On it's own, this seems rather silly and stupid, but the accidental shooting came months after several domestic disturbance calls from Burress' home prompted an investigation from the NFL. How is it that the league and its fans can even think to consider Brady's infractions on the same scale of punishment as those committed by Roethlisberger, Burress, and Rice?

There are still questions about Brady's role in deflategate—what did he know, and when did he know it?—but the NFL's internal standards for punishment involving violations of both the league's Personal Conduct Policy and, well, the law are convoluted at best. In a letter to Brady following the deflategate verdict, NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent said that the decision was designed to "protect the integrity of the league"—an assertion that seems "decidedly warped," as USA Today columnist Daniel Sager put it.

This more comprehensive chart from Sports on Earth, published after the Ray Rice scandal broke in 2014, drives this twisted worldview home:

(Chart: Sports on Earth)

(Chart: Sports on Earth)

Look, I'm a Boston sports fan: I've had my heart broken by the Red Sox, my spirits lifted by the Patriots, my childhood marked by cheering for the Celtics, and my liver ruined by too many Bruins games. But Boston sports fans (and all sports fans) need to recognize that the inconsistency of Brady's punishment isn't about Brady, but about how screwed up the priorities of professional football—that includes not just the league, but players, coaches, even fans—have become. For a cultural force like the NFL, treating allegations of cheating as seriously as sexual assault, and more damaging than domestic abuse, is worse than anything Brady and the Patriots could ever do.