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The Tom Brady Suspension Shows the NFL Plays in Its Own Warped Moral Universe

4 minute read
Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent at TIME. She covers politics, social movements, and generational change, and hosts TIME's Person of the Week podcast. She is also the author of The Ones We've Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America. Her work for TIME has won a Front Page Award from the Newswoman's Club of New York and has been nominated for a GLAAD Media award.

The thing about footballs is that footballs don’t talk. Footballs can’t accuse, footballs have no motives, footballs have no credibility to lose. Footballs do not dream and do not fear. And yet, in the National Football League in 2015, suspected abuse of a football merits a roughly equivalent punishment as suspected abuse of a woman.

In the moral universe of the sane, there is a clear pecking order of sins. Crimes against people are worse than crimes against things. Hurting a person’s body is worse than hurting a person’s feelings (or wallet). Beating is worse than cheating. But the NFL operates in a moral universe all of its own.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was suspended Monday for four games without pay after the NFL concluded that he was probably “at least generally aware” that footballs had been intentionally deflated to give him an edge. The team was fined a million bucks, and forfeited its first-round draft pick in 2016 and fourth-round draft pick in 2017. Immediately afterwards, the Twittersphere erupted in outrage that Brady had been suspended for four games for Deflategate, while former Ravens running back Ray Rice was originally suspended for two games after he beat up his girlfriend.

Then again, it’s not that simple. We can’t make a direct comparison between Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for his alleged involvement in Deflategate and Ray Rice’s two-game suspension for punching a woman in the face. For one thing, the NFL later admitted they had been too lenient with Rice, and he was ultimately suspended indefinitely, although that suspension was overturned after Rice won an appeal. When Adrian Peterson was indicted for child abuse after beating his 4-year old with a switch, the NFL suspended him for the season, but only after loud public outcry, and that suspension was also overturned on appeal. And earlier this year, Greg Hardy was suspended for 10 games for four domestic violence incidents against his ex-girlfriend, in accordance with the NFL’s new Personal Conduct Policy (although it’s worth noting that a 10 game suspension for four incidents is a punishment of just over two games per incident.)

So it’s not as simple as “two games for beating a woman, four games for delating a football.” The two incidents came at different points during the NFL’s long, slow process of growing a conscience. Instead, it’s more telling to look at what kind of evidence was used to come to these conclusions.

The NFL did not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that Brady was the mastermind of Deflategate. Instead, the league decided that Brady was “at least generally aware” that the balls were intentionally deflated, citing a “preponderance of the evidence, meaning that ‘as a whole, the fact sought to be proved is more probable than not.'” That evidence is mostly a flurry of phone calls between Brady and equipment assistant John Jastremski, and the fact that Brady would not hand over his text and email records.

After two women filed police reports last year saying Dallas Cowboys player C.J. Spillman sexually assaulted them in 2013, he’s still playing— Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said he’ll continue to play until an arrest is made and charges are filed. Two women accused Ray McDonald last year — one for domestic violence, one for sexual assault— but when he was cut for the 49ers because of a “pattern of poor decision making,” officials said it was a team decision, not a league decision. That means he’s free to keep playing for the NFL, and he just signed with the Bears. And despite Erica Kinsman‘s extensive, detailed account of the night she was allegedly raped by Jameis Winston, a rape which was investigated by the New York Times but mostly ignored by the police, he was selected as the top NFL draft pick. (Winston has filed a counter-suit to Kinsman’s civil lawsuit, claiming Kinsman is lying, and that she’s “0 for 6” in her claims against him.)

So when it’s a question of footballs, a series of phone records that indicate Brady was probably “generally” aware is enough to merit a tough punishment. But when it’s a woman accusing a football player of abuse, police reports and rape kits are not.

This isn’t really about Tom Brady or Ray Rice. This is about what the NFL thinks counts as “proof.” Clearly, women’s stories don’t make the cut.

Read next: Why the Tom Brady Suspension Is Ridiculous

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Write to Charlotte Alter at charlotte.alter@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.