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Why Roger Goodell was always doomed on 'Deflate-gate'

In a post-Ray Rice football landscape, he had no choice but to come down hard on the Patriots and Brady for their "probable" role in the Deflate-gate scandal.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was damned if he did and damned if he didn't.

In a post-Ray Rice football landscape, he had no choice but to come down hard on the New England Patriots and their star quarterback Tom Brady for their "probable" role in the Deflate-gate scandal.

Not only are the Super Bowl champions losing draft picks and getting hit with the biggest fine in league history — $1 million — they are losing Brady for four games, or one quarter of the season, due to the likelihood that he was "generally aware" of a NFL rule violation, according to a report commissioned by the league.

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The Brady suspension has sparked outrage from Patriots fans, the quarterback's defenders and critics of Goodell, who point out that the four-games ban matches punishments for performance enhancing drug use, and in the case of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, allegations of sexual assault. Meanwhile, the NFL commissioner's infamous, initial two-game suspension of Rice for assaulting his fiancee last year, hovers like a shadow over the entire process of holding the Patriots accountable. Patriots owner Robert Kraft said the NFL's decision "far exceeded any reasonable expectation" on Monday, and he alluded to plans to challenge the ruling, saying "Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered."

Although the punishment was handed down by his second-in-command, Troy Vincent, the person being held accountable for the controversial decision is undeniably Goodell. His history of inconsistent punishments for conduct policy violations has come back to haunt him yet again — right when the embattled commissioner was trying to redeem his image and the identity of his league, which has been dogged by domestic violence scandals for decades. Adding insult to injury, Goodell's suspensions of Rice and Adrian Peterson (the latter for child abuse allegations) were both overturned on appeal in the past few months.

For public relations reasons, Goodell needed to set an example. It's just that with Tom Brady and the Patriots, he got an imperfect one.

Brady, arguably the most recognized player in the league, is a golden boy of sorts — widely recognized as quite possibly the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. The Patriots have been the most consistently successful franchise in the NFL for more than a decade, with four Super Bowl victories in six appearances. They have their detractors, and a 2007 incident where the team was caught spying on another team's practices definitely hurt their reputation. Still, the so-called "Deflate-gate" scandal doesn't have, forgive the pun, the same weight as so many other alleged infractions by NFL players.

The Ted Wells report, which was released last week and provides the basis for the NFL's punishment, doesn't provided incontrovertible evidence of Brady's guilt or culpability. The Patriots played better with footballs that were brought back up to standards during the second half of the AFC championship game in January, the incident that spurned the whole controversy. And since the story initially broke, it has been revealed that several other teams and players have indulged in similar violations and never faced the kind of devastating blow the Patriots have.

Brady, through his reps, has indicated that he intends to fight the decision, and he has always, at least publicly, maintained that he has never cheated and had "no knowledge of" football tampering. Meanwhile, Goodell, who rolled out a new, stricter system of penalties for code-of-conduct violations last year, is getting both attacked and applauded today.

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"This was one of the commissioner’s better days," wrote Ron Cook on Tuesday for the Pittsburgh-Gazette. "There long has been a belief around the league, including at Steelers headquarters, that Goodell was too cozy with Kraft, the Patriots owner. One NFL insider described Kraft as 'an assistant commissioner' in a GQ article in January about Goodell. There was an overwhelming feeling that one man looked after the other."

On the other hand, USA Today's Mike Foss argues: "This suspension isn’t about deflating footballs, cheating, or one man’s struggle with the truth. It all boils down to arrogance. Not Brady’s arrogance alone, but NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s, and the entire Patriots’ organization. New England was fined $1 million because they thought they were bigger than Goodell."

Even Sen. Harry Reid has joined the chorus of critics, calling out Goodell for cracking down on deflated footballs but not the Washington Redskins for their racially insensitive team name. And on the other side of the aisle, Sen. Jeff Flake recently publicly criticized the use of American tax dollars to line the pockets of the league.

Whatever the motivation, there's no question that Kraft, Brady and Goodell are now all facing a barrage of bad press, which is probably the very thing the NFL commissioner was hoping to avoid. Months before the next NFL season kicks off, the league's biggest star, its most influential owner and nominal leader are all being called liars, fools or hypocrites — depending on whose side you are more sympathetic to when it comes to Deflate-gate. 

If Goodell's goal was the show the NFL has grown more intolerant of alleged bad behavior by its players, he's opened himself up to allegations that that the league values the integrity of an inanimate object over the well-being of women and children. As TIME's Charlotte Alter wrote Tuesday, the public is increasingly starting to believe "the NFL operates in a moral universe all of its own."