The NFL went very light on the Patriots for their most recent round of cheating.
Last season, the New England Patriots were caught illegally filming the sidelines of a game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns. Now, the NFL has made them aware of their punishment for (once again) violating league policy as it relates to the placement of their camera crews. Yes, you’re remembering correctly: the Patriots, under the leadership of head coach Bill Belichick, have been here before.
For the offense, under the team’s repeat offender status, New England has been fined a total of $1.2 million, docked a 3rd round draft pick and banned from filming any 2020 games. That sounds significant, to be sure, until you consider some realities.
First, this is not the team’s initial offense for roughly the same crime. (They have also been penalized for filming practices of other teams). Second, money means essentially nothing. Owner Robert Kraft is a multi-billionaire and Bill Belichick is reported to make north of $12 million a year, so however the money shakes out for these two insanely rich individuals will be fine. The team will not be affected. Third, every NFL game is not only filmed from multiple angles, but all film is also distributed league-wide. So the impact of not having your own film crew is relatively miniscule.
Then we’re left with only the draft pick penalty, which is significant. In fact, it is the only part of the punishment that is even remotely relevant. Losing a third round draft pick, for a coach who has made much of his living by landing quality mid-round selections, is relevant.
Does the punishment fit the crime? Any Chiefs fan should know, the answer is no.
In 2016, the Kansas City Chiefs and head coach Andy Reid were penalized for violating the league’s anti-tampering policy in pre-free agency (a policy which has since been modified). The league determined the Chiefs had contacted free agent-to be wide receiver Jeremy Maclin three days prior to the opening of free agency in 2015. For their first offense, Kansas City was fine in excess of $300,000 (and no, the money doesn’t matter to the Chiefs, either). The Chiefs were also docked a third round pick and a sixth round pick.
Talk to any NFL general manager and they’ll tell you that draft picks are a team’s most coveted commodity. When the Chiefs were stripped of nearly 30% of their draft picks for a single year, that was impactful. At the time, team owner Clark Hunt argued that the punishment was inconsistent with past violations by other teams stating:
"“While we respect Commissioner Goodell and the process, we believe that the penalties proposed in this case are inconsistent with discipline enforced in similar matters – particularly given the league’s inconsistent communication of its policies on contact with potential free agents.”"
Hint: he wasn’t wrong.
So, the Chiefs were over-penalized in 2016 for a relatively innocuous offense that so many teams were doing that the league changed the rules to add “legal tampering”. But the Patriots, who have now been penalized multiple times for actual cheating receive a lesser penalty just a few years later.
The Chiefs earned the penalty, but the punishment did not fit the crime then (and disproportionately hurt the Chiefs). Once again, the punishment does not fit, except this time, the sentencing is too light—again.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell must be held accountable for unequal levying of penalties under the authority in his office. The Collective Bargaining Agreement governing player conduct and penalties inherently balances the way those infractions are governed. No such mechanism exists for the conduct (and penalties) of organizations as a whole. Maybe it’s time that such a framework does exist.