Sometime in the next few days, possibly as early as today, the NFL is expected to announce a suspension for New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, punishing him for his role in the scandal commonly known as "DeflateGate." Brady was implicated in the Patriots' use of under-inflated football during the AFC Championship game, with Ted Wells, the independent investigator who spent four-months looking into the allegations, writing, "[it] is our view that it is more probable than not that Tom Brady (the quarterback for the Patriots) was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of [Officials Locker Room attendant for the Patriots, Jim] McNally and [equipment assistant for the Patriots, John] Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls."
What kind of punishment will the league hand down for a future Hall of Fame quarterback, reigning Super Bowl MVP, and one of the most popular players in the league? We will have to wait and see. What should they hand down? A half-season suspension.
Maybe not exactly half-season, but a six to eight game suspension makes sense. Why? Because Brady is going to appeal whatever suspension he receives.
I do not believe the deflation of the footballs is all that big a deal in terms of competitive advantage. I do believe it is a blatant breaking of the rules, and for that, the NFL has to come down hard. This is like speeding through an empty construction zone at the regular speed limit instead of the work-zone limit; really, no harm was done because there was no threat to a worker at the time, but it is still breaking the law. The speeder is going to get a double-fine and have to deal with it; the NFL has to give that harsh penalty to Brady.
If they do not come down hard on Brady, the cries of favoritism will be fast and furious. The league suspends players left, right, and center for violations of the league rules when they are not on the field. This is an on-field transgression that broke competitive balance rules. Whether or not Brady and the Patriots' offense received a benefit from the air pressure in the balls, it broke the rules and that is what matters.
So, Commissioner Roger Goodell must come down hard on Brady. He must make an example of the Super Bowl MVP, maybe because he is the Super Bowl MVP. Nobody can be above the rules of the game, and Goodell has to prove that is so.
But, he also has to know that the appeals process is still there. Anything he does to Brady will be appealed, which will likely lead to a lower suspension. The NFL needs to come out strong and suspend Brady for a large portion of the year, knowing the appeals process will lower it, probably to about where the league really wants the suspension.
If you assume the league is looking for a suspension of Brady in the 2 to 4 games range, placing the initial suspension at 6 to 8 could allow the appeals process to drop it to exactly that length. The league can come out of the situation having been strong on rule breaking, while still only losing Brady for the beginning of the season.
The NFL has to prove it will not stand for rule breaking, no matter what the rule and especially on-field rules. It has to prove that it will not take leniency on a player of Brady's stature just because of that stature. It has to set a precedence and prevent others from pushing the envelop too far. But it also has to know that, on appeals, a severe suspension is not likely to hold up. To counter that, the league should suspend Brady for about half the season, expecting the appeals process to eventually turn it into exactly what they would like in the first place - a 2 to 4 game suspension.