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. (Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

The evidence is thoroughly equivocal and the competitive advantage is nowhere to be found, yet the NFL is punishing Tom Brady and the New England Patriots as if they belong in Sing Sing. This case, perhaps more than all the others in the past year, sums up the NFL approach to justice: If you crack down hard enough on the little things, no one will notice the real scoundreling.

The NFL chose the wrong case to throw a book at, but then, the league is always far more worried about appearances than reality. So Brady gets a four-game suspension for undermining “the public confidence” in the NFL over an esoteric and unproven matter of air, and his team is stripped of draft choices and $1 million. I see. And what is Roger Goodell’s punishment for turning the entire moral underpinning of the league into sand? The NFL is so desperate to look like a rock of integrity after a year of truly damaging scandals that it has ginned up a case out of literally . . . nothing. A few whiffs of PSI.

DeflateGate would be more of a ‘Gate’ if the league had proven that the balls were in fact deflated. But it hasn’t. That’s what is so peculiar about this entire deal. The Ted Wells report commissioned by the league is perfectly clear on this point: No one is sure which of two gauges were used to check the pressurization of the balls. The gauges gave significantly different readings; one read much higher than the other and showed the balls were legally inflated. The referee in charge of checking the footballs, Walt Anderson, is pretty sure he used this gauge. Yet the NFL disregarded this critical point — and the testimony of their own official. Nevertheless the NFL decided the “preponderance of the evidence” showed Brady and the Patriots manipulated the game balls. That’s how eager they are to find wrongdoing.

Even harder to find is evidence of any actual harm: The Patriots won the AFC championship game, 45-7. In the first half, with the supposedly softer spheroids, Brady completed just 11 of 21 passes with an interception. In the second half, when everyone agrees the game balls were fully pressurized by the reading of any gauge, the Patriots scored four touchdowns and ran away with the game.

Did Brady attempt to influence how much air was in the ball? Sure. Every quarterback in the league is princess-and-the-pea sensitive to the texture and grip of the ball in his hand, and asks equipment managers to inflate them to his preference. If you dock Brady four games, then you have to dock Aaron Rodgers, too. Rodgers admitted to CBS analyst Phil Simms last season that he “pushes the limit” on how much air is in the ball. Rodgers has large hands and likes an extremely hard ball. He told Simms that he tells his equipment guys to “even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take the air out of it.” Simms reported this on national television, and no one called it a ‘Gate’ — for the simple reason that it’s not cheating. It’s a preference. And it comes with an equalizing downside. If a softer ball is easier to grip, it also decelerates when you throw it, loses velocity and doesn’t travel as far. If it’s overinflated the way Rodgers likes it, then it travels farther, faster.

Post NFL editor Keith McMillan recruits a few coworkers to see if they can tell which football has been under-inflated by 2 PSI, the amount the NFL claims the New England Patriots' game balls were deflated. (Davin Coburn and Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

You want a scandal? Greg Hardy. The defensive end has been caught brutalizing his ex-girlfriend four times. For this, he has been docked just 10 games. Brady gets four games for a whiff of air. Hardy gets 10 games, and a new contract with the Dallas Cowboys, for serial beatings.

This is how it goes in Roger Goodell’s NFL. The league throws the book at marijuana tokers to distract from the abominable abuses of NFL doctors when it comes to painkillers. And it throws the book at Brady and the Patriots to rescue the commissioner’s authority after a long hard year during which he misapplied his power in cases of domestic violence and child abuse.

Brady is the league’s attempt to reestablish control over disciplinary issues after the Ray Rice fiasco. The commissioner badly compromised the league by giving Rice just two games for socking his wife when he thought no one was looking. But when a video went viral and it turned out everyone was looking, Goodell made the suspension indefinite, and tried to make it seem like Rice lied to him. A former judge later found Goodell not credible and ruled that he “abused his discretion” in his handling of Rice’s case.

As Brady’s agent, Don Yee, told Fox Sports, “The NFL has a well-documented history of making poor disciplinary decisions that are often overturned when truly independent and neutral judges or arbitrators preside, and a former federal judge has found the commissioner has abused his discretion in the past.”

That’s the real root of this matter: The authority of the commissioner’s office has been badly weakened. The players’ union is lobbying hard to have discipline removed from league office hands and placed into those of a neutral arbitrator. This only makes sense. The owners pay for Goodell’s whopping salary, and this creates a basic conflict of interest. The commissioner is eager to preserve his power. But you don’t establish your authority by handing down a phony hanging-judge sentence in a case that doesn’t merit it. All that does is erode “public confidence” even further.

For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.