It’s Not Just What Manchester City Won. It’s What Others Lost.

If — and it is if, at this stage — Manchester City is found guilty, though, then the punishments can begin: The panel, according to the league’s statutes, has free rein to issue whatever penalty it sees fit. Domestic precedent ranges from heavy fines to points deductions. More severe sanctions, such as stripping City of its titles and even expelling the club from the league, are at least theoretically possible.

It would not, in that case, be merely City that suffered. So, too, would the Premier League. Having to place an asterisk next to more than a decade of its proudly melodramatic history — including some of its most iconic moments — would bring with it considerable blowback for the competition itself.

And yet to dress the Premier League’s case in those terms — to cast it as a battle for power between two bodies, to present it as a bellwether for greater regulation, to frame it as a political event — is to miss the point.

It is easy to lose sight of it, amid the arcane legalese and the stark list of rules and provisions and clauses that City is accused of breaking, but at the heart of the allegations made by the Premier League is a human cost.

Sports only work if there is a common set of rules. It is possible, of course, to disagree with those rules, to feel that they are arbitrary or antiquated or written by a self-interested elite to protect their own positions, the view that City (among others) has taken of soccer’s attempts at cost control. And in some cases, that dissidence is more than legitimate.

But the idea that when tyranny is law, revolution is duty does not hold, not in sports. It is not just that the integrity of the whole activity rests on a common acceptance of the rules — the assumption that everyone, be they teams or athletes, are competing under the same conditions — it is that the very meaning rests on it. The rules give the exercise purpose.

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