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In other sports, equipment tampering usually a minor offense

George Brett was famously ejected from a 1983 game for having too much pine tar on his bat.Globe file photo/AP Photo/file/The New York Times

How to make the punishment fit the crime?

If the NFL determines the Patriots did indeed flout NFL rules by deflating footballs below their regulation air pressure, then penalties would follow. But based on precedent, what form might that punishment take?

The NFL Game Operations Manual stipulates that those who alter the inflation of a football outside of regulations will receive at least a $25,000 fine. But NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell potentially wields the almighty hammer of Thor in the matter, with fines of up to $500,000, the forfeiture of draft picks, and suspensions at his disposal if he determines that the Patriots’ actions represented an affront to “the competitive aspects of the game.” Given the immense discretion wielded by Goodell, it’s hard to say that there’s a template to which he’s bound.


“It’s up to Goodell, so he doesn’t have to follow one script,” said Professor Michael McCann of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

And indeed, in this case, there’s no known script to follow. Beyond fines for uniform violations, there are virtually no known instances of NFL punishments of teams for tampering with equipment in a fashion that yielded a competitive advantage. (There is one known incident that has imperfect but potentially meaningful parallels to the current deflation controversy, detailed at greater length below.)

Of course, in the context of penalties in other sports for equipment doctoring, the idea of grabbing draft picks and/or levying massive fines along with anything beyond one-game suspensions would represent a staggering departure from precedent. The history of tampering with equipment across sports suggests that the issue is rarely treated with such sweeping penalties.

A look at how the different leagues have treated instances of equipment tampering:

Major League Baseball

The punishment for equipment tampering has been fairly standard. For decades, players found to have doctored baseballs — whether with sandpaper (Joe Niekro), pine tar (Michael Pineda), or thumbtacks (Rick Honeycutt) — or their bats — whether with cork (Albert Belle, Sammy Sosa, Billy Hatcher) or superballs (Graig Nettles) — have received a 10-game suspension, or roughly the equivalent of one NFL regular season game.


That penalty, however, often has been adjusted on appeal. In one particularly memorable instance, in 1994, umpires took a bat believed to be filled with cork from Indians slugger Albert Belle and took it to the umpires’ dressing room for subsequent examination by Major League Baseball.

The Indians knew that their teammate would be nailed. In an effort to spare him from punishment, teammate Jason Grimsley managed to slither through the ceiling into the umpires’ room and swap out Belle’s bat for a teammate’s.

The cover-up resulted in threats of a significantly amplified punishment if the Indians didn’t return Belle’s original bat. Cleveland did just that and Belle received his 10-game suspension – which, despite the cover-up attempt, still was knocked down to seven games on appeal.

National Hockey League

NHL rules governing equipment violations tend to be fairly straightforward. Sticks that don’t conform to the measurement requirements result in a two-minute minor penalty and a $200 fine for a first offense, a two-minute minor and a $1,000 fine for a second offense, and a game misconduct and one-game suspension on top of the two-minute minor and $1,000 fine for a third offense.


That sounds trivial, but fans of the L.A. Kings — who saw the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals against the Canadiens turn based on an illegal stick penalty on Marty McSorley and subsequent power-play goal — might beg to differ.

Goalies found with pads in excess of regulation size are to receive two-game suspensions, with their teams getting swatted with a $25,000 fine.

National Football League

The NFL famously has used draft picks, suspensions, and fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for nefarious activity at the level of a -gate suffix (Spygate, Bountygate). But not all -gates are necessarily created equal.

“I will imagine that at some level [Goodell will] refer to Spygate and Bountygate as appropriate instances of trying to determine the penalty, but there’s a good argument that those are worse in different ways than whether a ball is slightly deflated,” said McCann. “There are no player safety issues that come up with Deflategate. And the harm or the crime, the infraction is about equipment, not about taking another team’s intellectual property. So I think it’s a very different and I think more modest offense than the other two, but I guess because they have -gate attached to them, they seem like they’re relevant precedents. I think Goodell could conclude that this transgression, if there was one, could warrant a more moderate penalty than Spygate.”

But, assuming that the NFL concludes that the Patriots engaged in nefarious activity with the air pressure of the footballs used in the AFC championship game against the Colts, it’s difficult to know how differently Goodell views equipment tampering from the offenses of Spygate or Bountygate because he hasn’t had a visible opportunity to handle equipment issues. But there was one matter that gives at least some insight into the NFL’s handling of equipment-related matters.


Stickum — an adhesive to improve receivers’ ability to make absurd catches — was outlawed by the NFL in 1981. In 2012, the NFL investigated whether Chargers equipment managers were delivering an illegal, Stickum-like substance to players during a timeout.

Though the Gorilla Gold towels featured a waxy tack, they were determined after a league investigation to be in widespread usage throughout the NFL, thus meaning that they conferred no competitive advantage on San Diego. However, the Chargers were fined $20,000 (a fine that they appealed) for what the league determined to be initial reluctance to cooperate with the officials during the game when they demanded that the towels be relinquished.

The fact that the practice was widespread could have some bearing on the issue facing the Patriots.

“It sounds like in this Chargers instance — which is more of a parallel [to Deflategate than Bountygate or Spygate] because it involved equipment — the fact that this was being done across the league and the fact that there was a permissive attitude towards it, that seemed to help out the Chargers considerably,” noted McCann. “[Its value as a precedent] would depend on how common it is for balls to be deflated.”

Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.