NFL Deflategate Message: No Player Is Above the Rules, Not Even Tom Brady

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NFL Deflategate Message: No Player Is Above the Rules, Not Even Tom Brady
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

There is one thing you need to pay close attention to—those of you cursing Roger Goodell, cursing me, cursing the world over the NFL blasting the Patriots. It's this passage in the letter from the NFL's Troy Vincent to Tom Brady.

This is it. This the core. This is everything:

With respect to your particular involvement, the report established that there is substantial and credible evidence to conclude you were at least generally aware of the actions of the Patriots’ employees involved in the deflation of the footballs and that it was unlikely that their actions were done without your knowledge. Moreover, the report documents your failure to cooperate fully and candidly with the investigation, including by refusing to produce any relevant electronic evidence (emails, texts, etc.), despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information, and by providing testimony that the report concludes was not plausible and contradicted by other evidence.

Vincent continued:

Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football. The integrity of the game is of paramount importance to everyone in our league, and requires unshakable commitment to fairness and compliance with the playing rules. Each player, 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.

Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules.

Vincent and Roger Goodell—who got this decision right, as harsh as it is—basically believe that Brady lied and obstructed. They view Brady as someone who thought he was above it all. Not just the rules but the entire sport.

The NFL viewed Brady's actions as arrogance, and I know the league office saw the deflating of the footballs as the mechanical equivalent of using PEDs. That is not such a ridiculous comparison. PEDs destroy the competitive balance of the game and so, too, can altering the equipment.

This ruling—Brady suspended four games, the Patriots fined $1 million and the team losing a first-round pick next season and a fourth-rounder in 2017—has many layers. The NFL clearly decided that Spygate, the team's last cheating scandal, was part of the equation.

This decision is also part political. I give you that. Goodell needed to satisfy 31 other owners, head coaches and general managers who believe that Goodell and Kraft were too close and that the NFL overlooked the Patriots' alleged cheating for too long.

This sentiment was expressed by former Pittsburgh and Washington player Ryan Clark on ESPN when he said, "There was a feeling around the league...that the New England Patriots will bend the rules, they will try to find ways to win games that may [border] on cheating. ... Where there wasn't hard proof in some situations or in some places, people believed it to be true."

Pats fans will say, "What do you expect? He's a former Steeler." But as I've stated before, around the sport, many teams (if not all) believe New England cheated a lot and just didn't get caught. That fact, as unfair as it may be, is definitely part of this.

Former player Keyshawn Johnson, also on ESPN, said Brady should have been suspended eight games. "Make him suffer a little bit more," Johnson said. The reason Brady lied about deflating footballs, Johnson said, "is all about this, 'I'm perfect. I'm never wrong…'" Some of that is true, too.

But what this ruling is mostly about is Brady and the future of the sport. The NFL, in the past, has gotten decisions wrong. Ray Rice was originally suspended for two games for knocking out his fiancee. They will tell you that was a mistake (and Goodell has said it publicly).

Those times of easy punishments are over. That's the message. It's a new day because the league knows what's at stake here. The game can't be viewed as wrestling. Whether players pump up their bodies with fake drugs or deflate a football, the NFL knows the core of what made it the biggest sport in America is believability.

If the stars like Brady can simply break the rules, then engineer a cover-up, then flip the bird to the league when it investigates, that hurts the image of the sport. Put together a string of controversies like these, and people will wonder when Brock Lesnar will be the next coach.

Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules.

The rules apply even to Tom Brady.

Brady himself is a stickler for the rulebook. Remember when the Patriots fooled the Ravens in the playoffs last year, using (smartly) a trick formation to bamboozle them? The Ravens were furious, but it was their own fault.

Brady mocked the Ravens, telling reporters on Jan. 10, "Those guys got to study the rule book and figure it out."

On Twitter, besides cursing and stomping feet, Pats fans point to other teams cheating. Teams warmed up footballs or Aaron Rodgers wants his footballs overinflated or teams used an illicit substance to get a better grip on the football. All true.

The difference between those teams and the Patriots is prior history. Spygate is a part of this. Those other teams don't have a major scandal on their record. The warming of the footballs also happened in broad daylight, and when they were caught, the teams didn't pull a Brady. When Brady was busted, he basically said, "Me? Cheat? Whaaaat? Look how handsome I am. Over there! A unicorn!"

To this day, Brady has said nothing of substance about what happened.

That may be because he and his team are planning legal action against the sport or the investigator Ted Wells, but if you really had no clue about something you were accused of, wouldn't you say, as loudly as possible, "I. Did. Not. Do. This."

Not send your lawyers to say it for you. Or your daddy. Just you. Stand before the microphones and say this is all a vicious lie.

David Goldman/Associated Press

Goodell will be crushed by some for this decision, but he can't win. If he didn't come down hard on the Patriots, he would have been accused of favoritism. If he did hand down a stiff punishment, as he did, then he's draconian.

What Goodell and the league have done is adapt. Goodell made his mistakes. A lot of them. But he's now doing the right thing. He got this right. It was harsh. It was brutal, but it deserved to be.

To me, Brady is still the best quarterback of all time. He will only be surpassed by Aaron Rodgers. To me, Bill Belichick is the best coach of all time. He may never be surpassed by anyone. To me, Robert Kraft is the best NFL owner of all time. None of that changes.

But an arrogant Brady was held accountable. That's a good thing. It's a needed thing.

There's a chance Brady's suspension is reduced to two games, but the message was still sent. You are great, Brady, but you are not above everyone else.

You're not bigger than the league.

Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.

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