Column: No games? No worry. It's butt-covering season in NFL
The NFL moves heaven and earth a dozen times every Sunday of the season to get calls on the field exactly right.
But investigations and disciplinary matters?
Not so much. In those cases, close is apparently close enough.
At the end of a nearly four-month investigation into what's been dubbed ''Deflategate'' or ''Ballghazi,'' NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells arrived at - more or less - the same conclusions most of us did at the beginning.
A.) A Patriots' ball boy did it
B.) He had inside help
C.) Despite repeated denials, golden boy quarterback Tom Brady master-minded the whole thing
Being a lawyer, Wells needed 243 pages to say as much. And he couched those conclusions in less-accusatory terms, such as ''more probable than not'' and ''was at least generally aware.''
That way, Brady and everybody else in the Patriots' organization but the two low-level employees - officials' locker room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski - wouldn't be bothered to enter a plea. Only in NFL investigations and no-fault divorces does that kind of cynicism count as sound legal advice.
But Wells' turn of phrase wasn't entirely about convenience. It turns out ''more probable than not'' is the exact phrase the NFL put to paper a half-dozen years ago in case commissioner Roger Goodell decides to step in and punish teams for what were deemed competitive violations.
Those have ranged from ''Spygate'' in New England to ''Bountygate'' in New Orleans to piping in fake crowd noise ("Cheergate?'') in Atlanta, and the penalties have been all over the place.
If this is beginning to sound like your typical NCAA mess - without the phony ''student-athlete'' mantra, of course - there's a good reason. The Patriots are a lot like coach Barry Switzer's great Oklahoma teams of four decades ago: They're always in the hunt for a championship, and occasionally willing to bend the rules to get there.
Throw in the ''us-against-the-world'' philosophy and what you wind up with is an organization bothered more by losing than cheating. Or in NCAA parlance, ''a lack of institutional control.''
Given his track record, expecting Goodell to get the discipline right in what's become a delicate situation might be too much of an ask. He was too secretive in ''Spygate,'' getting rid of the evidence too soon, then overzealous in ''Bountygate,'' before being rescued from further embarrassment by his predecessor-acting-as-arbitrator, Paul Tagliabue. And there isn't time to recap how badly Goodell bungled a string of domestic-abuse cases involving players that began with Ray Rice.
For their part, the Patriots haven't exactly behaved like slick jewel thieves or shining lights, either.
Owner Robert Kraft whined there was no ''incontrovertible'' proof, but agreed to accept the NFL's findings and any league-imposed discipline. At least he's not demanding an apology anymore. Wells also cleared coach Bill Belichick and his staff, though it was almost unnecessary. After ''Spygate,'' Belichick learned not to leave his fingerprints on anything dicey again.
But not Brady.
He denied knowing McNally and refused to share to his own emails, text messages and phone records. But the report noted, ''... McNally told NFL Security that he had been personally told by Brady of Brady's inflation-level preference.'' So while Kraft once boasted that Brady never lied to him, Wells concluded - to borrow his phrase one more time, it was ''more probable than not'' - that Brady lied to them.
This whole episode would be comical, except that it raises questions about the integrity of the Patriots and Brady, one of the greatest teams and quarterback of any era. And don't forget: Whatever advantage they gained from a slightly under-inflated football was negligible. In both the second half against the Colts in a playoff game, and then against a much-vaunted Seattle defense in the Super Bowl - when the game balls were watched over, cuddled and obsessed over like a royal baby - Brady completed 12-of -14 passes with three touchdowns, and 37-of-50 with four TDs, respectively.
But if he's in the starting lineup for New England's opener Sept. 10, when the Patriots plan to show off that Super Bowl trophy to a packed Gillette Stadium crowd, it will be a joke. Anything less than four games - a quarter of the season - will be.
Taking away draft picks and-or fining the franchise aren't necessary to make the point. Sometimes the easiest way to teach people the importance of a level playing field is simply to tilt it and let them see what it looks like from the wrong end.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke.