The quarterback arrived at Salem State University by helicopter to adoring, cheering crowds. “Most famous witch hunt victims in Salem?” read one sign. “Bridget Bishop. Rebecca Nurse. Tom Brady.”

Oh, please. I don’t care much about football in general or Deflategate in particular. At least I hadn’t until Wednesday’s report concluding that two New England Patriots employees were involved in deflating game balls and that it was “more probable than not” that Brady, the Patriots quarterback, was “at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities.”

But the more I think about the episode, the more I listen to Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Brady’s entourage sputter indignantly about the, well, witch trial to which they have been subjected, the more I am convinced that (a) the transgression matters and (b) the punishment should be severe.

Actually, enough mincing words. This was cheating.

That’s a strong word, so let’s dispense with the argument that this was minor rule-breaking with no conceivable effect on the outcome of the lopsided AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Yes, the Patriots led 17-7 in the first half, when the squishier balls were used; they actually performed better , racking up 28 more points, when they played with properly inflated balls in the second half.

That doesn’t matter, for two reasons. First, those involved apparently thought the level of ball inflation was important enough to warrant a clandestine deflation plan.

Second, cheating is just as wrong when it is ineffective or unnecessary as when it works. Imagine that your child is caught smuggling an illegal calculator into an algebra exam. She’s a math whiz and didn’t need it. Does that make her conduct okay? Didn’t think so.

A related argument is that, in the larger context of professional sports, Deflategate isn’t big-time cheating. This is the head-exploding contention that convinces me that this episode is bigger than a meaningless sports squabble. The lesson it threatens to convey, especially to younger fans, is that, in our anything-to-win culture, rules exist to be broken, with minimal consequences.

Sure, there have been bigger cheaters in sports: Lance Armstrong. Tonya Harding. Too many baseball players taking steroids. But the prevalence of other forms of cheating does not excuse this version.

A friend, his ordinarily clear thinking addled by Patriots fandom, argues that the correct comparison isn’t doping — it’s a pitcher putting Vaseline in his glove: “It’s cheating, everyone knows you’ll get tossed if you’re caught, and everyone knows it’s part of the game and always has been.”

If it’s true that pitchers routinely cheat, that’s baseball’s problem. It doesn’t give quarterbacks a moral hall pass to cheat, too. And there’s no evidence that other quarterbacks routinely do.

As to the case against the Patriots and Brady, the report by lawyer Ted Wells makes rather convincing reading, particularly text messages between equipment assistant John Jastremski and locker room attendant Jim McNally. In the texts, McNally refers to himself, even before the start of the 2014-2015 season, as “the deflator.”

Did Brady know? The Jastremski-McNally texts feature discussions of Brady’s interest in inflation levels, including Jastremski telling McNally that Brady “actually brought you up” and “said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them [the balls] done.” The report concludes, plausibly, that the low-level aides did not likely act on their own. That Brady declined to provide e-mails, text and phone records does not help his case.

In the-best-defense-is-a-good-offense school of public relations, Kraft said he found “the time, effort and resources expended to reach this conclusion . . . incomprehensible.”

Don Yee, Brady’s agent, complained that the NFL “cooperated with the Colts in perpetrating a sting operation,” because the Colts expressed concern before the game. Um, a sting operation only works if those being stung are caught.

As for Brady, he helicoptered above the fray. “I haven’t had much time to digest it fully, but when I do I’ll be sure to let you know how I feel about it,” he said at Salem State.

Apparently, being a team owner, or being its star quarterback, means never having to say you’re sorry. Fine, but that lack of remorse should be factored into the punishment. And the consequence should not consist of simply writing a check, which won’t hurt. It should involve a serious loss of playing time, which will.

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