NFL wields power once again

From Adrian Peterson to Greg Hardy, the NFL is making strong disciplinary rulings in the last year and the Patriots are the latest example.

There are times when the NFL makes examples out of people to deter actions that it doesn’t want to see repeated. The Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson became the acid test for domestic violence and the punishment was heavy-handed. But what NFL commissioner Roger Goodell did Monday in punitive action in the Deflategate scandal has raised the bar for disciplinary action against players and organizations.

When the Wells Report was released last week, the NFL promised swift and decisive action would be taken to make sure that a message was sent. What came down was a punishment that sent a reverberating ripple effect to the other 31 teams that the integrity of the game is not to be messed with.

The Super Bowl champion Patriots and Tom Brady in particular were punished like no other team or players have been punished before, despite and acknowledged coziness between Goodell and Patriots owner Bob Kraft. Brady was suspended for the first four games of the 2015 season, the Patriots organization was fined $1 million and the team had to forfeit its first-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth-round pick in 2017.

If a message was intended to be sent, it came through loud and clear that such actions won’t be tolerated and that examples would be made of those who violate established policies of the league.

It wasn’t shocking that some form of penalty would be coming. When the Patriots were busted in the Spygate scandal, the league came down hard on them. When the Saints were found culpable in the Bountygate scandal that ended Kurt Warner’s career and effectively ended Brett Favre’s career, the punishment was unprecedented – a one-year suspension of head coach Sean Payton tipped the balance of power in the NFC South.

In both instances, the punishment fit the crime. If you try to do something outside of the rules of the game, there will be a price to pay. But the actions taken by the Patriots in the 2014 playoffs set a new standard for violating the “integrity of the game” policies that are in place and the backlash was huge.

There were some who questioned whether Brady would be held personally responsible, despite evidence that showed he was, at a minimum, aware of what was going on. The league took a dim view to other attempts to circumvent the sportsmanship angle of the game. Atlanta was hit with a penalty for piping noise in to the Georgia Dome. The Browns were hit similarly for its general manager texting the sideline during a game. But the implications of the Deflategate scandal are more far-reaching.

As the defending Super Bowl champions, the Patriots will have a nationally televised Thursday night opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was supposed to showcase two of the most successful Super Bowl-winning franchises in the league. It was going to be sold as a battle between Ben Roethlisberger and Brady. Now it would appear that it’s going to be Big Ben vs. Jimmy Garoppolo in the season opener.

Increasingly, the power wielded by the league office has become more centralized and more severe. The decisions in the cases of Peterson, Ray Rice and Greg Hardy have raised the bar as to what punishment is from the NFL. The Patriots fine is the harshest ever inflicted by the league and the statement has been sent to the rest of the league’s 32 teams that if you’re caught trying to cheat or circumvent the established rules of fairness to gain a competitive advantage that you will be dealt with harshly.

Although many insiders believe that Brady will appeal his suspension and likely have it reduced to two or three games, the punishment will be far-reaching. Taking away a first-round draft pick next year will strongly hinder New England’s short-term future – with no first-round pick, the Pats will have little ammunition to make moves to stockpile picks as they often have done.

There is going to be fallout from the decision to make the Patriots the poster boys for bad behavior. It has already begun in the shock and awe that followed Goodell’s decision Monday. It may not seem fair to some and, as in the Peterson case, the punishment may seem excessive, but in order for the league to maintain its control over its member teams, examples need to be made. Payton was an example. Peterson was an example. Perhaps the Patriots may end up being the worst-case example of them all.

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