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Only NFL owners can punish one of their own

“Deflategate,” the professional football scandal surrounding the 2015 Super Bowl champion New England Patriots using partially deflated footballs in the NFL playoffs, is old news everywhere except in New England, where a piece published earlier today says fans are still incensed.

Patriots Derangement Syndrome” is what the online magazine calls the mass denial of cheating exhibited by the team’s fans (there is more than a little irony in the fact that the most Democratic region of the United States is as deluded by a sports team as Republicans are about climate change – nobody’s immune to delusion if a core belief is threatened).

But in the months of news coverage and public discussion of this enormously important issue, an important aspect of the Patriots’ “crime” against fair play has largely been ignored. And that is that it was punished at all.

It's because the “criminal” in this case has been portrayed as quarterback Tom Brady, accused of requesting the deflated balls because they were easier to grip, or his immediate supervisor, coach Bill Belichick, who has a self-interest in knowing his most important player has a competitive advantage. But more likely both.

The ordinary non-Patriots fan looks at either of these two guys, who earn a combined $30 million a year and share more championships in recent years than anyone, with envy. And – in a world where the mighty seem to get away with anything – they see a rare case of justice triumphing over wealth and power.

Well, yes and no.

Let’s remember that the NFL investigation on which commissioner Roger Goodell meted out Brady’s four-game suspension, the team’s $1 million fine and the loss of two draft picks found that it’s “more probable than not” that Brady “was generally aware” of air being leaked from footballs.

This is an absurdly low burden of proof – nothing approaching “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is what we associate with convicting someone of a real crime.

Robert Kraft, who owns the Patriots, is the person who’s really taking the hit here even though the penalties amount to what he normally loses in the sofa cushions. Kraft is worth $4.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine, which means the salaries he pays his coach and QB each year amount to 0.7 percent of his fortune. Guys who become billionaires don’t get that way because they earn a paltry 0.7 percent return on their investments.

The real story of deflategate is how a multi-billionaire like Kraft, just weeks after his most recent championship, can be publicly humiliated by a commissioner that he and his fellow NFL owners employ. These guys, worth a combined $75 billion, own the legal system that convicted one of their number, the courtroom where the trial was held, the judge who handed down the verdict and his gavel.

When does that ever happen in the real world?

When the guy in Kraft’s position threatens something his fellows hold dear, which has to be an enormous amount of money and the NFL’s unparalleled ability to generate more of it.

Whether deflategate by itself is enough to shatter public confidence in the competitive integrity of the league or whether it’s the tip of an iceberg that we don’t see, the rest of pro football’s ownership club sees Kraft as a potential threat to their very successful joint enterprise.

He’s been put on notice.

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