Deflategate and the purpose of punishment

Chad Thornhill

Unless you have been under a proverbial rock of late (in which case you probably are not reading this), you have likely heard some chatter surrounding what has become known as “Deflategate,” involving NFL quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.

The scandal began back in January when, shortly after Brady’s Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts in a 45-7 route, reports emerged that the footballs which the Patriots used were inflated below league standards. The Patriot organization, Brady included, vehemently denied any knowledge of an issue with the footballs. The league began an investigation, and the resultant Wells report, released last week, determined it was more likely than not that Brady had knowledge of the tampering.

The punishment is, among other things, a four-game suspension for the future Hall of Fame quarterback, a ruling that Brady has appealed. Mixed reactions have occurred, with some praising the league and others questioning how such a harsh punishment could be handed down when Ray Rice was only given a two-game suspension for domestic violence. Questions abound. Was the verdict just? Does the league and commissioner Roger Goodell render punishments arbitrarily? Does the evidence sufficiently point to Brady’s guilt?

The Bible provides a complex picture of punishment. The law given to Israel did not provide simply a list of arbitrary “dos and don’ts” with arbitrary punishments for offenses. The purposes of the law, or at least a few of them, were to bring order to God’s people, to distinguish them from their neighbors, to promote justice and to lead Israel to spiritual, moral and societal flourishing. We late-moderners may think the punishments overly harsh at times (such as retributive mutilation when mutilation occurs), but we should also recognize the punishments are designed to “fit the crime.” God’s law and prescribed punishments were intended to promote justice and order rather than excessive retaliation, which often was the case in other ancient legal systems.

God judges rightly, not arbitrarily, and He expects His people to judge themselves as a reflection of His just character.

God, in His judging activity in the Old Testament, concerns Himself not merely with punishment, but with ruling, bringing justice and creating order. God’s judgments are covenantal and relational. God judges rightly, not arbitrarily, and He expected His people to judge themselves as a reflection of His just character.

Divine judgment functioned not simply as a means to an end (i.e., punishment), but to bring repentance and correction. Jesus’ own teachings about judgment, such as His harsh words recorded in Luke 13, intended to spur hearers onto faithful commitment to God (“strive to enter”). Thus the judgment described is held out in hope of repentant correction or continuation in steadfastness.

This perspective is made explicit in several places in Scripture. Proverbs 3:11-12 affirms, “Do not despise the discipline of Yahweh, my child. Do not be weary of his reproof because whomever Yahweh will love, he will rebuke, as a father delights in his son.” The author of Hebrews quotes this verse approvingly and also informs that this purposeful correction intends to make God’s people sharers of His holiness and recipients of “the peaceful fruit of righteousness.”

It would be unfair, of course, to expect the NFL, or any human institution, to reflect the perfect justice of God. But we should urge human institutions to render right decisions. A little less arbitrariness (or at least perceived arbitrariness) in the NFL’s rulings would go a long way toward more positive public acceptance of their decisions. And likewise, we ourselves should seek to be people who are less interested in someone “getting their due” than in their receiving correction which will produce repentance. That is, after all, the message that Jesus proclaimed: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”