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The NFL punished Tom Brady and the Pats for lying, not for deflating balls

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The NFL couldn't give Tom Brady a big punishment for the actual rule-breaking. To the NFL, the real crime was not cooperating with the NFL.

Tom Brady and the Patriots received a punishment far larger than you'd expect for merely deflating footballs. But in the NFL's eyes, their punishment wasn't actually for deflating footballs.

When the DeflateGate scandal broke, several people reported that the NFL had a punishment on the books for altering game balls.

That punishment? $25,000. (Some reported a minimum of $25,000, others reported a maximum. Either way, people kept reporting $25,000.) When the Panthers and Vikings deliberately altered balls during a cold game in December, their punishment was ... a warning.

The Patriots were fined $1 million, 40 times more than the rulebook's punishment. And they lost a first-round draft pick. And a fourth-round draft pick. And Tom Brady was suspended for four games. How could the NFL follow the rulebook so literally when deciding if a crime had been committed, then completely throw the rulebook away when deciding the punishment?

Because the NFL was extremely clear that it wasn't punishing the Pats just for cheating. From the official explanation of the Pats' penalty -- emphasis added:

For the violation of the playing rules and the failure to cooperate in the subsequent investigation, the New England Patriots are fined $1 million and will forfeit the club's first-round selection in the 2016 NFL Draft and the club's fourth-round selection in the 2017 NFL Draft.

The official explanation of Brady's penalty -- again, emphasis added:

Quarterback Tom Brady will be suspended without pay for the first four games of the 2015 regular season for conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL. Brady may participate in all off-season, training camp and pre-season activities, including pre-season games.

"Conduct detrimental to the integrity of the NFL" is a fun phrase. It's the clause in Article 46 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement -- "commissioner discipline" -- and it isn't really defined. It's kinda up to Roger Goodell to decide what it is and how it's punished. In this case, it seems like it applies to both Brady's cheating and his lack of cooperation.

NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent additionally wrote a letter to Brady, in which he states:

...The report documents your failure to cooperate fully and candidly with the investigation, including by refusing to produce any relevant electronic evidence (emails, texts, etc.), despite being offered extraordinary safeguards by the investigators to protect unrelated personal information, and by providing testimony that the report concludes was not plausible and contradicted by other evidence.

"Your actions as set forth in the report clearly constitute conduct detrimental to the integrity of and public confidence in the game of professional football.

There's no way the NFL could've justified the huge punishments it levied for an equipment violation. But by penalizing Brady and the Patriots for their failure to cooperate, Roger Goodell and the league found a legitimate reason to drop the hammer.

This actually isn't that dissimilar to how the league punished Ray Rice. (Please, please, please do not interpret this as a comparison of the wrongs Brady and Rice committed. One of them did a horrible thing, the other did something sleazy that modestly affected football games.)

Rice's initial suspension was two games. After video of Rice punching his fiancée was released, the NFL realized the two-game suspension was a huge mistake. But it couldn't legally increase Rice's suspension just because video of his incident came out -- labor law prevents companies for suspending somebody twice for the same act when all the facts were available at the time of the first punishment.

The NFL's primary legal justification for Rice's eventual indefinite suspension was that Rice had misled the league: His depiction of events was insufficient for the NFL to properly understand what had happened. Therefore, the NFL could add further punishment without a new crime. But a judge ruled Rice hadn't misled Goodell -- he'd provided all the information he needed the first time around, and he only needed to serve the initial two-game suspension.

Brady probably won't have similar luck. It does seem like he withheld information from the NFL, so if that's what the NFL is punishing him for, it would most likely hold up.

With Brady and the Patriots, the NFL had one of two choices: It could've given the Patriots the tiny punishment the crime they committed mandated. Instead, the league sent a message that even a marquee player on Roger Goodell's friend's team can't get away with lying to Roger Goodell. For Goodell, the choice was easy. Gotta Protect the Shield.