Does the NFL’s Tom Brady suspension signal a new era of league responsibility?

Tom Brady Deflategate

Photo via Keith Allison/Flickr

#Deflategate was a long overdue opportunity for Roger Goodell to step up.

Roger Goodell has had a terrible year. Since taking the reins as the NFL‘s commissioner in 2006, Goodell, as a disciplinarian, has been reckless, self-serving, and mostly awful, but a season marked by domestic violence allegations and obfuscation from the league was particularly ugly.

But in announcing a four-game suspension Monday for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady for his role in #Deflategate, Goodell finally showed that he can get it right. Call it the beginning of the age of NFL player responsibility.

As Goodell has floundered the past year, his decision on Brady—one of the league’s biggest superstars, one who is coming off a victory in the Super Bowl—was one of strength. That show of force, which was imperative because Brady had violated the integrity of the game, may indicate that Goodell has finally learned from the flagrant mistakes of the past year.

Last July, Goodell missed an opportunity on the Ray Rice incident, originally suspending him just two games after the former Ravens running back gruesomely knocked out his wife in an Atlantic City hotel. He watched as two of the league’s best players, Vikings running back Adrian Peterson and former Panthers defensive end Greg Hardy, were embroiled in domestic violence incidents at the same moment the NFL was taking tremendous PR hits for their lax response to that issue. And then the Patriots were caught illegally deflating footballs in the AFC title game.

For the first time since he took over as the NFL’s commissioner, there were calls for Goodell to be fired, primarily on the Internet. He’s survived, and he will likely continue to survive because he makes the NFL owners (i.e., his bosses) a tremendous amount of money.

But Goodell’s biggest weakness has been the punishment he’s meted out as the head of the league. Throughout his tenure, Goodell has been heavy-handed with his suspensions when he’s not needed to be, and he’s been lax with his decisions when a firmer hand was required. As much good as he’s done for the NFL—growing the game internationally, clearly dominating the players union in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement sessions, and bathing every owner in impressive amounts of green—he’s been inconsistent and, oftentimes, unfair when punishing players.

Goodell’s biggest weakness has been the punishment he’s meted out as the head of the league. 

Goodell, though, has begun to find his level.

Actually, it started after the Rice debacle, which did more damage to the league’s image than anything in recent memory (including the ever-lingering concussion issue). Goodell reversed himself after the pitiful two-game suspension, publicly admitting he didn’t get it right and suspending Rice for a longer period. Rice, because of his suspension and the toxicity surrounding him, might not ever play in the NFL again. 

When Peterson admitted to beating one of his kids with a switch, the NFL basically suspended him for the entire 2014 season. When Hardy was convicted of domestic violence, the league ensured that he will miss a total of 25 games in 2014 and 2015.

The conclusion: If you misbehave these days, Goodell is going to make you pay.

Brady’s crime wasn’t nearly as egregious as the ones above. The Ted Wells investigation into Deflategate said that Brady most likely knew that footballs were being illegally deflated for his benefit (because a deflated ball would be easier for Brady to handle).

But here’s where he made more trouble for himself. Brady refused to cooperate with the independent investigators and didn’t allow his phone to be studied for incriminating text messages that could have proven that he was well aware of the efforts of two Patriots employees to deflate footballs and/or that he encouraged the rules violations.

Setting aside the lack of definitive proof that Brady knew about this (the report only said it “is more probable than not that [Brady] was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities … “), Goodell has shown in the past that if you’re contrite and apologetic and that you cooperate with the investigation, he’ll show you mercy.

If you misbehave these days, Goodell is going to make you pay.

Brady, though, refused. So, Goodell responded: Fine, here’s your four-game suspension.

It doesn’t matter if there’s concrete proof of Brady’s guilt. This isn’t a court of law. This is Goodell’s domain, and if he wants to enforce stricter rules, that’s his right (as spelled out in the CBA the players signed in 2011).

However, that doesn’t mean Roger Goodell is out of danger. He serves at the behest of the owners (and because of it, he banked $105 million total from 2008-2012). If Goodell makes them angry, they can rid themselves of him. To date, aside from making the league money than ever before, Goodell also has been the one to take the heat from media and fans for all the NFL’s ills. That also increases his value.

But Patriots owner Bob Kraft, who might be the closest owner to Goodell, is reportedly upset by the punishment. One owner told Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman that even though the league owners support Goodell in this decision, the relationship between Kraft and the commissioner “is pretty much dead.”

Goodell must have known that reaction was coming, so on some level, his decision on the Patriots and one of his biggest allies was courageous. Or calculating, according to CSNNE.com’s Tom Curran.

[The punishment was] excessive. Over-the-top. And proof that, in this clash between [NFL headquarters] and 1 Patriot Place, a weakened Roger Goodell saw a chance to get his swagger back by going after the most successful organization of the millennium and the most accomplished quarterback of the Super Bowl era.

But remember back to the last time the Patriots were in Goodell’s crosshairs. We remember it as Spygate, when the Patriots were caught illegally videotaping their opponent’s sideline in 2007. The team was fined $250,000, coach Bill Belichick was docked $500,000, and the Patriots were stripped of a first-round pick. Yet, the punishment, in reality, was weak, and Goodell was accused of covering for his buddy’s organization because the league destroyed those videotapes before anybody else could see them.

This is Goodell’s domain, and if he wants to enforce stricter rules, that’s his right.

Has Goodell been a good commissioner? Depends on who you ask. The owners, who have supported Goodell every step of the way, would say yes. Players would vehemently disagree. Fans busy emptying their wallets are too addicted to the game to give a clear answer.

Either way, Goodell wanted to make a statement with this punishment. He’s done that by suspending one of the best quarterbacks in history. The lesson here: If you don’t show contrition or, at least, a little cooperation, the NFL is going to punish you harshly whether you deserve it or not.

Clearly, Goodell wants to exorcise the ghosts of all the bad decisions he’s made since the beginning of 2014. This was a pretty good start. 

Josh Katzowitz covers the NFL for CBSSports.com and has contributed to the New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Newark Star-Ledger and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Katzowitz has written two books, Bearcats Rising and Sid Gillman: Father of the Passing Game.

Photo via Keith Allison/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

Josh Katzowitz

Josh Katzowitz

Josh Katzowitz is a staff writer at the Daily Dot specializing in YouTube and boxing. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times. A longtime sports writer, he's covered the NFL for CBSSports.com and boxing for Forbes. His work has been noted twice in the Best American Sports Writing book series.