Sports

CHRISTOPHER L. GASPER

Roger Goodell needs to get it right on Tom Brady’s suspension

Tom Brady throws passes for a living. Now, the Patriots quarterback is going to have to throw himself at the mercy of the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell, hoping Goodell is on target.

He’s usually not, so here is some help for Goodell, the Protector of the NFL Shield. There is no way you can suspend Brady for the football version of a petty crime for any more than two games, not when that is the initial suspension you handed Ray Rice for striking his girlfriend, now his wife, in the elevator of an Atlantic City casino.

Not when that is the same number of games league vice president of football operations Troy Vincent initially promised Adrian Peterson when the running back injured his son with a wooden switch.

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It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of how long the NFL decides to suspend Brady for his role in the Patriots playing the AFC Championship game with deflated footballs, as determined by the Wells Report that was released Wednesday. According to the New York Daily News, Guardian of the Game Goodell is set to suspend Brady and announce it next week.

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Goodell and his staff believe Brady broke the rules and was “at least generally aware’’ of the plan to deflate footballs. They believe he didn’t cooperate with the Wells investigation and that Brady’s refusal to provide logs of his communication are like the missing 18½ minutes of tape from Watergate. They’ve branded Brady a cheater and are ready to punish him as such.

This is sobering news for Patriots fans who are still defending the honor of their team and their franchise quarterback, still debating the finer points, scientific findings, and the ultimate conclusion of the NFL’s commissioned report.

In a case about air pressure, the pressure, the burden of proof, now shifts to Goodell and the NFL. If they’re going to punish one of the most accomplished and recognizable players in league history for a picayune offense based on circumstantial evidence, they better get it right. The punishment must fit the crime, which is not a four-, six-, or eight-game ban.

When it comes to meting out discipline, Goodell has been more off the mark than Tim Tebow. The punishments handed down often seem arbitrary and capricious.

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The first Ray Rice suspension of two games for domestic violence last year was an indefensible embarrassment. The second one, an indefinite suspension ordered after a video of the incident was made public, was basically mocked by a federal court judge, who overturned it. Another federal judge overturned Peterson’s ban until April 15. To Goodell’s credit, a 10-game suspension of Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy for battering his girlfriend looks appropriate.

What has been lost in the dissection of the Wells report and whether Brady is culpable is the stature of the crime. In Brady’s case, it’s an alleged football crime that affected competition, while the Rice, Peterson, and Hardy violations involved domestic violence.

If Brady was part of a plan to use Patriots staffers John Jastremski and Jim McNally to illicitly deflate footballs, it removes some of the luster from Brady’s legacy. But his alleged transgression is the rulebook equivalent of a running a red light, not carjacking.

That doesn’t mean that a punishment is not warranted and that a suspension is not appropriate. But trying to send messages or settle scores with Draconian punishment was for the French Revolution, not professional football.

One area the Wells report doesn’t delve into is exactly what kind of competitive advantage was gained by deflating the footballs and how significant it was. That’s up to Goodell to determine and should be a significant factor in doling out discipline for Brady.

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Obviously, under-inflated footballs would be easier to grip, particularly in wet conditions. But Brady was actually better in the second half of the AFC title game, after the NFL re-inflated the Patriots’ footballs to 13 psi. He was 12 of 14 for 131 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions. In the first half, he went 11 of 21 for 95 yards with one infamous interception that launched this whole saga.

Can we all agree that under-inflated footballs are not why the Patriots pounded the Colts, like they always do, 45-7 in the AFC Championship game?

The other issue here with the punishment is just how certain Goodell is that Wells got it right in determining it was more probable than not that Brady was at least generally aware of the alleged rule-breaking activity.

The report contains no irrefutable, incontrovertible evidence.

The NFL doesn’t need that standard to punish Brady. Its standard, set forth in the league’s Policy on Integrity of the Game & Enforcement of Competitive Rules, is a preponderance of evidence. “It means that, as a whole, the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not,” reads the pertinent part of the policy.

But if the league is going to give Brady the same four-game suspension it gives to performance-enhancing drug users or the baseline six-game ban it can hand out for violating the league’s personal conduct policy, the evidence of wrongdoing should be stronger than this.

It’s interesting that Brady is facing a suspension for Deflategate, but that his head coach, Bill Belichick, was never suspended for Spygate, the 2007 signal-taping scandal. He was fined $500,000. The team was docked a first-round pick and fined $250,000.

League executive vice president/general counsel Jeff Pash later stated that Belichick was actively supervising the activity related to the signal-taping.

That’s the way the NFL goes. The league is always quicker to punish the pigksin proletariat, the players, than it is anyone in a position of authority.

Brady’s agent, Don Yee, said on Friday that he couldn’t provide an answer for what he and his client would do with a suspension. Brady’s punishment will probably be crafted on the belief that he will appeal it.

Brady’s punishment should fit the crime, or the NFL’s disciplinary process will fall flat again.

Christopher L. Gasper is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cgasper@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.