Mariotti: Brady, no Montana, is latest in endless line of cheats

Never, ever forget the fundamental ill of cheating in sports: It's a consumer issue. You pay money to watch these athletic contests, correct? You devote time, passion, family bonding and maybe some of your wardrobe, too. So when Tom Brady enlists two lackeys in a premeditated scheme to circumvent the rules and deflate footballs, it's yet another attack on the integrity of what is expected to be sacred competition.

When that competition is compromised by deception, it becomes something less than authentic, reducing sport to the approximate believability level of WrestleMania. Not only is your intelligence being insulted, your wallet is being assaulted. You cough up big money for tickets, sit for countless hours in front of the TV, wear your Brady jersey and buy his Ugg boots, only to find out he's texting a guy with a needle who is conspiring with another guy calling himself “The Deflator.”

What's so deadly about the Brady story — and a whopping NFL-issued punishment that was well-warranted for him and the long-devious New England Patriots — is that he was supposed to be the All-American type with no phony bones. In a relentless 15 years of cheating scandals that have scarred Major League Baseball, the Olympic movement, cycling, soccer and goodness knows how many other leagues and organizations, a fairy tale like Brady's always led us through the muck. His story was about hard work, perseverance, beating the 199th-pick odds and the flabby combine body. Every time a baseball star or Lance Armstrong was caught juicing, or another NFL player found himself in serious legal trouble, or Tiger Woods was caught with his bimbo brigade, we always could depend on Tom Brady, folk hero.

Now it turns out even he tried to gain an illegal edge, falling into crooked lockstep with a team found guilty of illegally taping opponents' defensive signals in 2006. The Patriots are becoming better known for their improprieties — Deflategate, Spygate — than the four Super Bowl trophies now discredited by those ethical breaches. That sad truth doesn't even factor in their convicted murderer, Aaron Hernandez.

Which begs a question: Is anything in sports legitimate anymore?

And another: Why keep watching if it isn't?

“Each player, no matter how accomplished and otherwise respected, has an obligation to comply with the rules and must be held accountable for his actions when those rules are violated and the public's confidence in the game is called into question,” Troy Vincent, the league's executive vice president of football operations, wrote in a letter to Brady.

Is it me, or is every stellar achievement tainted these days? On the same night the league suspended Brady (best quarterback of the 21st century) for the first four games of next season, fined the Patriots (football's reigning dynasty) $1 million and docked them future first- and fourth-round draft picks, the Incredibly Shrinking Barry Bonds (baseball's all-time home run leader) was inducted into the only Hall of Fame he'll ever make: the Bay Area Sports Hall. Time was when Brady and Bonds were the most celebrated graduates of Serra High School in San Mateo. Now, I wonder if we should interview their teachers. Meanwhile, Pete Rose (baseball's all-time hits leader) was being asked in his new Fox Sports 1 gig about Brady, this while Rose serves a lifetime ban for betting on baseball. Last week, the big scam was why promoters had the gall to bilk pay-per-view customers — at $99.95 a pop — without disclosing Manny Pacquiao tore a rotator cuff during training for his fight against scumbag Floyd Mayweather (boxing's greatest pound-for-pound champ). In recent days, the big scammer has been Alex Rodriguez, who tied and then passed Willie Mays and moved into fourth place on the all-time homer list, the same A-Fraud who twice was caught using performance-enhancing drugs after twice denying so.

We're not connecting dots these days. We're intersecting liars and cheats.

All of which has me in a protective mode when it comes to sport's truest greats and their genuine milestones. Just as the likes of Henry Aaron and Mays should be held in higher regard than Bonds and Rodriguez, no matter the final numbers, Brady's turmoil should obliterate any notion he had surpassed his idol, Joe Montana, as the greatest quarterback ever after his latest title in February. Some of us were heading in that direction while considering Brady, in tying Montana's four Super Bowl wins, had done more with less than any quarterback in history. Montana was fortunate to have Jerry Rice and an array of skill-position weapons throughout the 49ers' dynasty. Brady arrives each training camp and sees new receivers and running backs wearing “I'M (FILL IN THE BLANK)” nametags.

But just as Aaron didn't juice, Montana had no need to doctor footballs. As he said recently in mocking Brady, “I mean, it's easy to figure out who did it. I mean, did Tom do it? No, but Tom likes his balls that way, obviously, or you wouldn't have 11 of them that way without him complaining because, as a quarterback, you know how you like the balls. If it doesn't feel like that, something's wrong.

“The quarterbacks don't touch the footballs. If I ever want a ball a certain way, I don't do it myself. So somebody did it for him. … It's pretty simple. If it was done, it was done for a reason, and there's only one guy that does it. Nobody else cares what the ball feels like.”

Montana never would declare himself the greatest ever, regardless of Brady's mastermind role in the leak job. That's why Montana has Dwight Clark to grab the ball for him. “#TomBrady as good as @JoeMontana?Now would be a good time to reevaluate. Joe is 4-0 in SB's w ZERO INT's, 3 SB-MVP's & ZERO deflations #GOAT,” Clark tweeted after the league's edict was announced.

Be careful not to confuse competitive-integrity issues with legal problems. Yes, Commissioner Roger Goodell erred hideously with his original two-game suspension of Ray Rice, part of an erratic pattern of disciplinary incongruity that should have gotten him docked $44.2 million in pay. But Rice and other miscreants broke criminal laws, and while Goodell must respond with appropriate punishments, those also are matters for the authorities. The Brady case is an NFL competition issue, period. And Brady can't be screwing around with integrity, period.

As for those who giggle about shrinking or sagging balls and don't grasp why we're mentioning Brady in the same breath as Armstrong and baseball juicers, understand this: In tampering with footballs — and who knows how many times he has done so — Brady gave himself a competitive advantage in a championship game. Beyond that, he continually has denied involvement and didn't cooperate with the league, as if he's smarter than the rest of us because he's Tom Brady. It's the way he went about it — so sneaky, so smarmy — that is so galling.

We've always compared him to a politician. The comparison still works, in all the wrong ways. If Brady were wise, he'd call a news conference and fess up, as Mark McGwire did in an emotional cleansing that allowed him to move on. Until he does, Brady will be regarded as the cheating champion, rather than the champion who stepped forward to acknowledge a mistake. The Patriots, too, will be regarded as the shady franchise always a misstep away from a new “gate,” yet always in denial.

“Today's punishment … far exceeded any reasonable expectation. It was based completely on circumstantial rather than hard or conclusive evidence,” Patriots owner Bob Kraft said Monday. “Tom Brady has our unconditional support. Our belief in him has not wavered.”

He cheated, Bob.

“We earned everything we got and achieved as a team,” said Brady, admitting nothing, “and I am proud of that and so are our fans.”

You cheated, Tom Brady.

Joe Montana, you are not.

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