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NFL has a ball with juvenile behavior

A certain wise man once observed that when he was a child he spoke as a child and behaved like a child, “but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” On the other hand, St. Paul never had a chance to become a fan of the National Football League.

When boys’ games are carried into adulthood, the childish things remain at the core of the activity. If you think the NFL is populated by men of mythically heroic proportions, listen to that hissing sound. That is the air coming out of the football, deflating also our last illusions.

The latest example is called Deflategate, because ever since Watergate every scandal large or small in America must have the word “gate” attached to it in order to be taken seriously. Gate manufacturers have complained about this but to no avail.

As scandals go, this one is on the small side — in fact, it’s of juvenile proportions. Nevertheless, it does say something large about professional sports and the infatuation that attends them.

For those who have just awakened from a coma, the details are thus: Tom Brady, the star quarterback for the New England Patriots, stands accused of using deliberately deflated footballs, the better to grip and pass, in a playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts on Jan. 18. The Patriots won 45-7 and went on to become Super Bowl champions yet again.

The NFL did not say that the quarterback himself took the air out of the footballs — why, that would be beneath his dignity. The dirty deeds are said to be the work of a couple of peripheral characters dealing with locker room and equipment matters. Who better for a job of soiled sportsmanship than those who live in the habitat of soiled laundry?

The league says that Tom Brady probably knew about this. That qualification leaves a desperate foothold for those who would rise up to proclaim the player’s innocence with an absurdly straight face. Yet in Texas the more-probable-than-not standard of evidence can get you executed for murder.

Besides, if he is the greatest quarterback in the history of football, logic strongly suggests he would know a deflated football when one is in his grip. Probably here nudges certainly.

If he had wanted to prove his innocence, the quarterback could have provided the requested emails and texts sought by the NFL, but he refused. It is not known whether he actually pouted and said “You are not the boss of me” in a little boy’s voice.

The penalty is not execution or even a flogging with wet towels after coming out of the shower. The untwinkling star is suspended for four games, the equivalent of being made to go to his room without his supper. The Patriots have been fined $1 million, chump change for chump behavior, and they will lose a couple of draft picks. Life will go in the NFL much as it always has.

This was all about restoring a semblance of integrity to the league. Unfortunately, it is a bit of challenge, given that the league has been plagued by an assortment of wife-beaters and other criminal miscreants in its ranks. When the NFL stands up for integrity, it is like Madam Flossie’s Palace of Fun coming out for chastity.

Perhaps the league should fine itself as a step toward greater credibility. How stupid is it to have a rule that makes each team — not the league — responsible for the footballs used in the game? This is what kids do on the way to the local sandlot. The NFL has an employee for every other task, but it can’t hire a guy with a pump?

Of course, when the kid who owns the football doesn’t get his own way, he goes home with the ball. In the NFL, they just take more money home in the long run. You can thank the ever-forgiving fans for that.

Yes, Patriots fans, that would be you. No doubt you will regard Tom Brady as St. Sebastian, the martyr pierced by arrows, but if memory serves I don’t think St. Sebastian ever cheated.

And for what? When one professional team from one place beats the team from another, both largely peopled by players from somewhere else, this does not convey any moral superiority. It just means one team is better than the other at moving a pigskin.

Childish things don’t have to be entirely put aside — football is fun as entertainment — but all fans (me included) need to keep our sense of proportion properly inflated.

Reg Henry is a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist. Readers may email him at rhenry@post-gazette.com

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