Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Sports Law Grading Break: A Little Perspective on Deflategate

I had planned to write a post about Delaware LLCs and who has standing to request judicial dissolution, but that post is going to wait.  I'm knee deep in Sports Law exam grading, and so sports is on my mind.  The big thing going on right now is, of course, Tom Brady's four-game suspension for his apparent participation in having footballs deflated to a psi that was not in compliance with league rules.  

The science on the benefits of deflating footballs is not clear, as noted here.  That, of course, is irrelevant to whether the rules were broken.  Some have argued that the air pressure rules are stupid, especially given that the league not long ago change the rules to allow each team to prepare their own footballs for use on offense. Andy Benoit of SI.com explains

With football being so much about strategy, the more comfortable the ball is for a quarterback and his receivers, the more entertaining the game becomes.

The NFL already agrees with this. Why do you think officials and ball boys go to such lengths to try to keep a football dry during a rainy game? Or, bringing it back to the inflate/deflate issue (or inflate/deflate controversy, since America has decided to be dramatic, if not hysterical, about this), why did the NFL permit quarterbacks to prepare their own balls before games in the first place?

The problem is, the league didn’t go far enough here. It should abolish all parameters regarding the ball’s air. Tom Brady didn’t cheat. Tom Brady’s job is to throw the football. Unfortunately, he had to go too far out of his way to do his job well.

I wouldn't think it would take a lawyer to explain that this reasoning is flawed, but perhaps it does. Even where a rule is stupid, counterproductive, or even obstructionist, it is still a rule. Failing to follow it leads to sanctions.  If a speed limit is too low, it can limit my ability to get to a meeting on time or make it so the FedEx driver can't deliver as many packages in a day.  But if either one of us gets clocked by a police officer's radar going 15 mph over the speed limit, we're going to get a ticket. And it's no defense to say, "But it's making it harder for me to do my job well!" 

Brady, through his agent, has vowed to appeal, as is his right.  Some people seem very concerned with Brady's image, and other have even suggested that the suspension could keep Brady from a future in politics.  Maybe, but given that we live in a country that has re-elected many people who have tarnished their own images while in office, I'm not going to be too concerned about this.  

The NFL, of course, has its own image issues, much of which is self-imposed.  The sanctions against Brady seem reasonable but severe, if acting in a vacuum.  But we don't, and it's hard to to look at other relative punishments for guidance.  The NFL has been aggressive with suspensions in other areas, such as Sean Payton's year-long suspension for BountyGate. Saints fans were certainly not happy with the outcome of the NFL's punishment.

On the other hand, as the Washington Post reported, A lot of people noticed that Tom Brady got twice as long a suspension as Ray Rice’s initial punishment.  The NFL could argue, of course, that Brady broke the league's rules, while Rice was subject to punishment from thecriminal justice system, too.  And they might, if they wanted to remain as tone deaf on domestic violence as they have been in the past.  

Why the NFL has this inflation rule, though, is a fair question. As Andy Benoit noted in the article linked above, why not just let each team provide footballs with whatever inflation they want?  If it is easier to catch a deflated ball, then it's also easier to intercept.  The league knows that offense sells tickets, so why not provide an advantage to all teams, if there is one to be had?  Seems like a win-win option, and it reduces the number of things NFL officials have to worry about enforcing. Less regulation of regulations that are hard to enforce and have dubious value to the integrity of game helps everyone involved, and it reduces people trying to game the system through largely irrelevant technical rule enforcement. (I'm looking at you, pine tar.)

Still, a rule is a rule, and if you get caught knowingly breaking a rule, there will (and should be) sanctions.  And let's be honest: The New England Patriots, with Bill Belichick and Tom Brady know what they are doing better than most.  They are arguably the most successful coach and quarterback combination in NFL history, and they are very, very good at what they do. They only do things they think will help them win, and if they do something risky, there's a good chance they're correct that there's an advantage to be had.  

Respect them for their skills, and hold them accountable for actions. And let's keep it all in perspective. It's still just football, and this time, no one got physically hurt.   

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/business_law/2015/05/sports-law-grading-break-a-little-perspective-on-deflategate.html

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Comments

I don't think the punishment went far enough. A winning-focused, unethical QB -- now knowing the rewards and punishments might very well make that decision again.

That said, the NFL punishment is only part of the overall punishment. Brady and Belichick have had their reputations sullied, and they may eventually wish that they could trade their wins for a good name.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | May 12, 2015 2:46:58 PM

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