Apparently the iron fist of Roger Goodell grades on a curve.
Thirteen months ago, the NFL's commissioner, judge, jury and special prosecutor began blowing up rank-and-file miscreants such as Pacman Jones and Chris Henry. No convictions necessary. No appeal possible.
If you exercised poor judgment and surrounded yourself with associates of dubious moral fiber, you were on double-secret, unpaid probation. Listen carefully to what Goodell was saying then: "We must protect the integrity of the NFL."
Sure, Goodell was cheered on by Gene Upshaw and the players association. It seemed everyone was tired of reading accounts of this player at that strip club involved in such-and-such a disturbance involving the use of (pick three) firearms, alcohol, fan dancers, underage females, the Cincinnati Bengals' corporate bail bondsman, fistfuls of $1 bills and speeding SUVs headed southbound on northbound streets.
Jones and Henry received stiff penalties - 16 and eight games, respectively. Have a look at what Goodell wrote to them: "Your conduct has brought embarrassment and ridicule upon yourself, your club and the NFL ..."
We bring this up now because the NFL has a new embarrassing threat to its integrity, and Goodell seems to regard it as little more than old news wrapped in last Saturday's paper. You may know it as Spygate.
The saga began last September when the New England Patriots were caught filming the signals of New York Jets defensive coaches. Goodell flew into action, fining the Patriots $250,000, coach Bill Belichick $500,000 and penalizing the team its first-round pick in the 2008 draft.
At the time, the penalty seemed in line with Goodell's zero-tolerance policy regarding any embarrassing, immoral or potentially unprofitable behavior (mostly that last thing). Now it seems that was a grandstanding ploy to throw us off the scent - to the point that you wonder whether those fines were for real or for show.
Now it smells like a double standard. You disagree? Then try this: Imagine if Goodell were to be presented with evidence that Jones had engaged in bad acts even before his suspendable offenses. Do you think the good commissioner would run it through the wood-chipper, or do you think Jones' suspension might be reviewed and extended (not necessarily in that order)?
It seems clear now that there's nothing more to the Patriots' story because Goodell doesn't want there to be anything more to the Patriots' story. And he doesn't want that because he has a good working relationship with team owner Robert Kraft. And by good working relationship, we mean: Before he was commissioner, Goodell was the NFL shirt-and-tie in charge of new stadium development. He helped smooth the way for teams such as, well, the Patriots for instance, to build new revenue-generating facilities. In return, owners such as, well, Kraft for instance, chose Goodell to succeed outgoing commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
So the lesson here, apparently, is that Goodell can throw the bookcase at players, because there's an endless supply of them. But there are only 32 owners, and an astute commissioner knows better than to come down too hard on a member of that club.
Especially when you have your hands in each other's pockets, right down to the lint.