In considering disciplinary action against Tom Brady in the deflategate scandal, Roger Goodell faces a huge dilemma. He is in the difficult position of having to weigh and balance the conflicting priorities of the NFL team owners, the fans, the sponsors, his own conscience and sense of fairness, the integrity of the game and the message to kids.
Goodell established himself as the NFL law-and-order commissioner in 2007, when soon after taking office, he levied suspensions against Chris Henry, Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson for their off-the-field misconduct. However, more recently he has been severely criticized for his initial leniency in the Ray Rice domestic violence case, and his awkward handling of the Adrian Peterson episode under the aegis of the NFL personal conduct policy. Now he must determine whether a non-violent form of cheating, according to the Ted Wells investigation, warrants penalties for Brady and the Patriots.
In some way this situation becomes an opportunity for Goodell to demonstrate that he is his own man by instituting a substantial suspension to Brady, at the risk of losing support and allegiance from the team owners whose focus, as always, is in protecting the NFL brand. Robert Kraft, the Patriots owner, was especially supportive in saving Goodell's job when he was under siege last year. Currently, Kraft has been very outspoken about the injustice toward Brady in the Wells report. Will Goodell risk alienating Kraft and the other owners, or find a solution to placate them?
Goodell is also concerned about issues related to the image of the game. The dangerous long-term effects of concussions and the preponderance of off-the-field issues such as domestic violence, sexual assaults and a high profile murder case have tarnished the image of the NFL and its players, and the Patriots deflategate investigation threatens to create another stain on the game. Despite the multitude of negative publicity, the NFL is more popular than ever, and while certain sponsors might cut their connection to Brady, who earned $7 million in endorsements in 2014, they are likely to continue to buy into promoting the NFL. Will fans get turned off by the ball deflation episode and reduce their television viewership and attendance at games? No! Goodell does not need to worry about fan apathy. It is a sad testimony that fans, in their need to maintain their love affair with sports, will find a way to compartmentalize their awareness of players who lapse into ethical misbehavior along side of their enthusiasm and loyal following of the game. It is worth noting that in 2007, Senator Arlen Specter in pressing for further investigation into the Spygate affair cautioned that, "If the public loses confidence in professional football, it will be like wrestling." The reality of wrestling is that although many people beleive that the sport is staged, there continues to be a high level of interest among its followers, which reflects our capacity for compartmentalization.
Brady did not help his situation by his obfuscating responses in the Jim Gray interview at Salem State University. His evasiveness was reminiscent of Mark McGwire's stonewalling at the congressional hearings on steroids in sports in which he repeatedly stated, "I'm not here to talk about the past." We can only wonder what would motivate Brady to partake in this adventure. One leading theory would be that his judgement became compromised by some degree of insecurity about his ability to sustain his superior level of effectiveness.
Let's put the event in a larger perspective. It is similar to the PED issue in sports insofar as as deflating footballs can help to enhance performance by making it easier to grip, throw and catch the ball. To that extent, it is a flagrant attempt to gain an edge and represents a form of cheating. However, Brady's culpability in his encouraging Jim McNally, the Patriots locker room attendant, to make the balls lighter (he had previously complained that during a game against the Jets "the balls felt like bricks"), and attempting to convey that he didn't know what was going on, pales by comparison to athletes' whose misconduct is destructive toward others (domestic violence and sexual assaults) or self destructive (the health hazards of using PEDs or alcohol and substance abuse). Nevertheless, it call for more than a slap on the wrist level of discipline.
Most importantly, Roger Goodell must ponder the impact that his disciplinary action will have on youths. A suspension of six or more games would send the message that character and integrity count as much as performance in sports, and that lapses into misconduct, large or small, are not acceptable for NFL players who have a responsibility of serving as role models.
Our culture is already sadly darkened by the likes of Lance Armstrong, A-Rod and other cheaters in sports whose exposed flaws have disillusioned many kids who needed to adore them and believe in their integrity.
Stanley H. Teitelbaum, Ph.D., Psychoanalyst, author of "Athletes Who Indulge Their Dark Side" and "Sports Heroes, Fallen Idols".