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Tom Brady, Patriots can blame only themselves for NFL’s harsh DeflateGate punishments

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(AP Photo/Charles Krupa, Pool)

The four-game suspension of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, handed down by the NFL on Monday, and the Patriots’ $1 million fine and loss of draft picks are the end results of Brady and his team defending themselves when they should have explained themselves. The Patriots’ response turned an obscure accusation — using illegally and deliberately under-inflated footballs — from minor rule-bending into full-blown spectacle. They upbraided detractors, evaded questions and defied the league. They could have avoided the entire mess if Brady had only admitted what he did.

The suspension, which is justified, is not about how much of an illicit advantage the Patriots gained (probably not much), the behavior of the NFL (suspect at best) or the flaws within Ted Wells’s report (numerous). Poking those holes dances around the crucial issue: Brady flouted a rule, and then lied about it to the public and to investigators. The latter matters as much as the former.

[NFL suspends Brady four games, fines and strips Patriots of draft picks]

It was an error of strategy as much as a failure of morals that got Brady benched for the nationally televised season opener plus another three games. The controversy mushroomed as the Patriots made misstep after misstep. Whenever they could have scuttled the story, the Patriots intensified it.

How does Tom Brady's four-game suspension for "Deflategate" affect his legacy? And what does the punishment mean for the New England Patriots' upcoming season? The Post's Adam Kilgore explains. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

Humility would have quelled the controversy, but the Patriots’ arrogance sparked it. Coach Bill Belichick authored a 40-minute news conference about barometric pressure. Owner Robert Kraft shrieked upon arrival at the Super Bowl and demanded an apology from the commissioner. Brady insisted to a room full of reporters he was certain he had done nothing wrong.

All along, the Patriots waged a stonewall defense best suited for a court of law when they needed a charm offensive to sway the league and public opinion. Imagine Brady had stepped to the podium on the Wednesday after the AFC title game and said the following: “It’s true; we took a small amount of air out of the footballs once the officials checked the balls. I did not believe it violated the spirit of the rule or the integrity of the competition, but I was wrong and I apologize to the Colts, the NFL and the fans. I do not believe our actions impacted the outcome of our victory against the Colts, but I played outside the rules and I am willing to accept punishment.”

The NFL rulebook calls for a $25,000 fine for tampering with the footballs. Brady could have cut the check a week before the Super Bowl and put DeflateGate behind him.

Instead, the Patriots ensured the NFL would pursue them and gave the league ammunition. The NFL deserves scorn for stoking the story with leaks the week before the Super Bowl. But the Patriots invited the story to linger and grow with their indignant denials.

[Reader poll: Punishments too harsh?]

The narrative the Patriots presented, including Brady’s uncooperative approach to Wells’s team, may have left enough reasonable doubt for a jury to let them walk. But the NFL never needed to prove he cheated beyond a reasonable doubt. The phrase “more probable than not” has been mocked by Patriots supporters, but the Wells probe reportedly used it for a reason: That is the threshold required for punishment.

The NFL was never going to let Brady off lightly once he lied to the investigators hired by the NFL. The Wells report specifically called out Brady for saying he didn’t know locker room attendant Jim McNally existed, even when “we found these claims not plausible and contradicted by other evidence,” the report said. “In fact, during his interview, [John] Jastremski” – a Patriots equipment manager who worked with McNally – “acknowledged that Brady knew McNally and McNally’s role.”

And there is a precedent for how the NFL punishes players who lie during league-commissioned investigations. New Orleans Saints defensive end Anthony Hargrove lied to investigators about the existence of the Saints’ bounty program. The league handed him an eight-game suspension, which was later reduced to two games.

Commissioner Roger Goodell’s brand of justice verges into bizarre paternalism, and it has eroded his credibility into a thin paste. But he has also shown no sign of changing, so Brady should have known the effect lying would have on his punishment. It could have saved him had the threshold of proof been higher. With the NFL’s threshold, it was a foolish mistake.

The NFL does not come off looking good in the entire matter. While the Wells report stated the league did not run a “sting operation” on the Patriots, the NFL botched its reaction to the Colts’ charge that the Patriots used under-inflated footballs. It should have told the Patriots to knock it off. Instead, it alerted all parties except the Patriots that it would be keeping a close eye on PSI. Is that a sting? Any claim otherwise is purely semantics.

But no matter how the Patriots were caught cheating, they cheated. And when they were caught, Brady lied. Spin the rest of it any way you like. That’s why the NFL suspended Brady. That’s why he deserved it.

More coverage of DeflateGate:

Brady offers little in first public comments after Wells Report

Wells Report: ‘Probable’ Patriots violated rules, Brady knew

Wells Report: ‘More probable than not’ that Patriots violated rules with Brady’s knowledge

The hilarious and profane texts in the Wells report