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20th October 2015

The Problem with the NFL

James Lack casts an investigative eye across the pond to assess the NFL disciplinary record

Last Sunday, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady made his 213th appearance in the NFL against the Dallas Cowboys in Texas. Two weeks before, against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Brady threw his 400th career touchdown pass to Danny Amendola to give the Patriots a 19-3 lead, and became only the fourth player in NFL history to reach this milestone (they went on to beat the Jaguars 51-17). While this historic moment was widely celebrated by NFL fans worldwide, it is worth bearing in mind that Brady wasn’t meant to start this game, nor the two preceding it, nor in Dallas.

Roger Goodell, Commissioner for the NFL, gave Brady a four-game suspension, along with a $1 million fine for the New England Patriots, and the loss of two draft picks, in the aftermath of the Deflategate scandal, where it was found that the Patriots were playing with balls below regulation pressure in their 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in January, to win the AFC championship game and take them to Superbowl 49. Brady’s suspension was awarded on the grounds that there was “substantial and credible evidence to conclude” that he was “at least generally aware of the actions of the Patriots’ employees involved in the deflation of the footballs.”

This seems a vastly excessive punishment when you consider that just two weeks before, Dallas Cowboys Defensive End Greg Hardy received the same suspension after being criminally convicted of domestic violence, with his charges including strangulation, physical abuse, and death threats toward an ex-girlfriend. Brady’s own conviction was only later overturned—after multiple appeals—in federal court by senior judge Richard M. Berman, and even then it was only on the grounds that the original trial lacked “fair due process.” Berman declared that the NFL’s campaign against Brady lacked “fundamental fairness” and “evident impartiality.”

In other words, the NFL was out to get him. And it’s easy to see why. After the scandal, Brady and the Patriots were very unpopular, with fans worldwide vying for their blood; as far as they were concerned, the Patriots had cheated, and they deserved to be duly reprimanded. The trouble is, the NFL isn’t just a governing body, it’s a franchise, and its commercial success is dependent upon support from its fans. Failure to properly convict Brady would’ve likely seen a drop in revenue, representing a poor business decision by Goodell. So right from the start, NFL’s board of conviction had a vested interest in the outcome of the trial, making for hardly a fair conviction.

The fact that any NFL hearing is less of a trial and more of a business meeting all but defeats the purpose of any disciplinary action—the board stands not to uphold decent behaviour, strict morals, and the creation of good role models for the numerous young people who follow the sport, but to make the most commercially-savvy moves that it can, regardless of what it has to do with fairness. Many players convicted of assault, DUI, domestic abuse or theft receive limp-wristed, token suspensions of just one or two games, simply because of the lack of any real disciplinary board.

September 2015 marked the first full calendar month in which an NFL player hasn’t been arrested in more than six years. The poor behaviour regularly demonstrated throughout the league is symptomatic of a sport in need of an upheaval. Until discipline and good personal conduct become a priority over results, and more to the point, money, the NFL will remain a league with a very real problem.

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