The NFL has quietly added another layer of absurdity to the DeflateGate ordeal, which is now lumbering into its seventh month of existence with no clear endpoint established. In one move, the NFL managed to both overreact to the controversy and further undermine its shaky case against New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. After a half-year of missteps, in the midst of an endless charade, the league found one more way to mangle the case.
Over the weekend, former NFL head of officials Mike Pereira, now a Fox Sports analyst, revealed that the NFL had informed referees of changes pertaining to the measurement and recording of air pressure of game-day footballs. There will be increased testing, oversight and security surrounding the balls. At random games, officials will measure the PSI of 24 footballs at halftime. Two officials, instead of only the referee, will measure and record the inflation of footballs before the game.
The NFL needed to address the way footballs are handled on game day. As the details in the Wells Report showed, the system of how footballs make it on to the playing field was slipshod and vulnerable to teams that wanted to flout the rules to gain an advantage. The old guidelines were either incomplete or incoherent.
With the changes, though, the NFL further damaged its case that Brady deserved a four-game suspension for a general awareness that the Patriots were illegally manipulating game balls. The NFL implicitly admitted its old guidelines for handling footballs were not applied in a consistent or meaningful way. That means the NFL implicitly admitted it suspended Brady a quarter of a season for violating rules that were so incomplete or so poorly enforced they had to be fundamentally changed. Even if Brady broke a rule, the NFL never showed it cared enough about ball inflation levels that it would merit a long suspension.
The NFL already has a stiff legal battle on its hands in the event Commissioner Roger Goodell upholds any part of the suspension the league levied against Brady. The NFLPA believes it has a strong case that Goodell is acting as a biased arbiter in the appeal process, and that the league violated its own standards in the way it punished Brady.
The new rule changes only further damage the NFL’s public stance and make the harshness of the original punishment look silly. The league will have to explain why it felt strongly enough about air pressure to suspend Brady, but not so strongly about it that it bothered to make or regularly enforce strict guidelines before this incident. It doesn’t make any sense, except in the context of how the NFL has operated under Goodell, just guessing and making it up as it goes along.