Tom Brady and the New England Patriots have been all over the news this week, as the NFL has come down hard on them for allegedly deflating footballs. The coverage has included lofty statements by the NFL about the integrity of the game. That concern seems to be fairly newfound.

When teams were found to be heating balls during winter games, which both warm and inflate them, the league issued whopping fines of $25,000.

It does seem that a case can be made that the Patriots ball boy, who’s actually a 50-something super-fan, may have deflated the balls just before the AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. Why he did that is unclear. It could be as simple as his wanting to be a hero, influence the game like a real player and please Brady, his idol. None of that is known.

While no cheating can be condoned in any activity, what we do know is that after four months of “investigation” and hours of interviewing Brady and others in the Patriots organization, no evidence was produced that ties Brady to any wrong-doing. That didn’t stop the NFL from fining the Patriots $1 million and two draft picks. Brady, despite no history of rules violations, is losing about $2 million from his four-game suspension and a lifetime reputation as a straight shooter.

There’s a larger issue at work in this case than what happens to Brady or the Patriots. It’s about how justice is meted out in America, and who gets to do it.

Let’s get beyond the footballs and the celebrities for a moment to give some thought to what just happened. The NFL, which is a billion-dollar private corporate entity, has just served as the accuser, investigator, prosecutor, judge and executioner in this case, and nobody has asked how they can do that.

Imagine the conversation we’d all be having if this case wasn’t about the NFL and the handsome millionaire Brady, but about Big Box Store and a woman stocking shelves.

Let’s say that Big Box Store suspected the woman of stealing things, before it had any direct evidence, and recklessly caused her embarrassment and damaged her reputation. By doing so, it opened itself to a lawsuit and significant damages. In order to protect itself, it appointed its own law firm, which handles all lawsuits brought by employees, to undertake an “independent” investigation of the matter.

The investigation not surprisingly sustained the company’s claims, without much direct evidence, by asserting that it was “more probable than not” that the employee stole something and that her friend, who we’ll call Terry Brady, “most likely knew about it.”

When Big Box Store fired the employee and her friend, a salivating press rushed to report the findings, as though they’re actually the work of an independent reviewer. The “defendants” had no day in court. No rules of procedure. No independent judge. And no jury of their peers to turn to.

If that actually had happened, the country would be shocked and personal injury attorneys would be trampling each other to take the case against Big Box Store.

But the NFL is somehow immune from the normal and accepted rules of justice. While it has pretended to be a neutral arbiter in this case, nothing could be more ridiculous. The league and its brand are worth many billions of dollars. Any activity that might diminish the value of that brand is of direct financial interest to the league.

It’s worth remembering that early in this case the league leaked a series of rumors about the Patriots and Brady that it could not prove and that weren’t accurate. By doing that, it opened itself to legal action from the Patriots and Brady, and its officials knew it.

Everything they’ve done since has been to protect themselves against that action, including naming their own law firm to “investigate” the situation and present an “independent” report that looks surprisingly like a legal brief against claimants. The best defense, as they say, is a good offense.

The NFL is not and cannot be a neutral party in cases like this. It cannot with a straight face appoint “independent” investigators who work for them. And it certainly cannot both protect itself and be a fair judge of others.

The NFL is acting in a way that no other company or organization in the country would be allowed to act. The media have helped. And too many others have been doing exactly what the NFL wants us to do, which is to focus on the ball.

Alan Caron, a Waterville native, is a partner in the Caron and Egan consulting group, which is active in growing Maine’s next economy. Email at [email protected]

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