There is currently an amazing focus in American sport on the appropriate levels of air pressure in balls. And it is revealing the worst of everyone involved.
Admittedly, #deflategate[i] is a pretty odd situation. At half-time in the American Conference Championship last week, it was discovered that the balls supplied by the home team, the New England Patriots, had underinflated the balls they were using. The balls were reinflated to the correct air pressure before the start of the second half. That these balls were under-inflated was a surprise, given that there were inflated to the correct air pressure 2 hours before kick-off, as designated under the league’s rules. It suggested that someone had let the air pressure of deliberately.
Why you ask? Well, if you’re anything like me, you’ve discovered a fair bit about air pressure and the NFL’s arcane rules about balls this week. Turns out each team has its own set of balls for offence. And by under-inflating their balls, the New England Patriots may have gained an advantage because their balls may have been easier to catch, throw and grip that more inflated balls. Did I know this before the game? No. Did it actually impact the game? Probably not. Is there any evidence that it is deliberate malfeasance? There may be circumstantial evidence – the Patriots balls were underinflated, their opponents were not. Apart from that – not much. Both the Patriot’s Coach Bill Belichick and star quarterback Tom Brady have come out publicly to say they did not deflate, nor ask anyone to deflate, the balls.
Instead what this controversy has done is bring out the worst in all parties. The NFL, the media, the team involved, the rest of the league and the fans. People have claimed the act has threatened the integrity of the game. Rather, it is the reaction of most parties – notably the media and the rest of the league – that has done most damage to the integrity of the league.
Firstly, the team involved. The New England Patriots are already considered ‘cheaters’ by many in the league on account of an incident in 2007 in which they videoed the signals of the New York Jets defensive coordinator in order to understand what was being communicated[ii]. The issue here was that such videoing had been made illegal prior to this game by the league. The Patriots were docked a draft pick for their misbehaviour, and were tarred as cheaters by the wider NFL community. Given this history and their success, it’s hard to separate how much of the reaction was then, and is now, opportune jumping on. The Patriots have been the dominant team in the league for around fifteen years now, doing so on the back of Belichick’s brilliant football mind and willingness to find efficiencies were others are unwilling or unable to look.
If they Patriots did deliberately deflate the balls then it was a profoundly stupid thing to do. Belichick, possible the smartest football mind of not only his generation but in the history of the NFL, would have tarnished his legacy in pursuit of an advantage so minuscule that his team actually scored more points in the second half with properly inflated balls than they did in the first half with underinflated balls. Outside of hypothesising about the impact of the weather on the air pressure in the balls, Belichick has provided no substantial explanation for the deflation. Brady was unconvincing in his attempt to defend himself from allegations he may have deflated the balls, and in a press conference was unable to sway anyone from that suspicion.
Ultimately though, the behaviour of the New England duo has been entirely keep with what would be expected. If they had done it they likely would have denied it. If they had nothing to do with it they also would have denied it. That Brady was unconvincing in his denial says more about the sheer surreal nature of inquiry he was being subjected to. Think about it: if someone came up to you and asked you to account for the amount of ink of the pens on your desk how would you behave? And what if this was your boss, who could fire you on the spot for having the wrong amount of ink? Would you be potentially be a tad confused by the situation?
The media’s behaviour in this situation has – with notable exceptions – been one of moralistic and hyperbolic hot-takes resembling a mob hunting down and putting a witch to flame. First they called for the sacking of Bill Belichick – even the normally excellent Jackie MacMullen failed in this regard – without investigating or addressing the evidence of wrongdoing. Then when Belichick turned up at a press conference and said exactly what you’d expect him to say – that he had no idea how deflation could have occurred – they turned on Tom Brady for his unconvincing denials. Ian O’Connor of ESPN.com should be singled out for a column whose thought-process was abrogated undeveloped, calling for Brady to be sacked, not for any evidence that he tampered with the balls, but instead because he couldn’t tell the difference between 2 pounds of air pressure. Like the Oscars, they commented on his dress and the fact he said ‘balls’ a lot. The old white men at Sports Illustrated have fared no better – providing bloviated moralising about the integrity of the game. And, without a sense of irony, there has even been the obligatory “won’t somebody think of the children?” Indeed, when provided with an opportunity to question to alleged offenders, the press-pack was more interested in asking about whether the Patriots’ Coach and quarterback were concerned if they could ever look little Jimmy in the eye and tell them to believe in America.
On television, failed, unpopular and simple-minded commentators have taken the opportunity to make a name for themselves by providing definitive embellishments and overstatements based on nothing but their feelings. THey have done this whilst managing to ignore that they largely ignored the Ray Rice fiasco, managed to look past a culture of destroying the brains of players, and have largely ignored that the game is rife with actual cheating in the form of Performance Enhancing Drugs – notably by the current champions and New England’s opponent in next week’s Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks.
With the notable exception of most of the actual players, the wider NFL community has also failed to meet this controversy with any sense of proportionality. Former GMs have taken the chance to complain about a ‘culture of cheating’ within the Patriots, with Carolina’s former boss Marty Hurney complaining unironically that they would have won the Super Bowl around 12 years ago without the Patriots maybe possibly cheating, whilst acknowledging his team did have a sneaky few people get suspended for actual cheating that season.
The Baltimore Ravens – probably the Patriots biggest rival – jumped on the bandwagon to complain that the kicking balls were underinflated when they played the Patriots in the second week of the playoffs, only to discover, to everyone’s surprise, that the NFL actually provides the kicking balls.
So I guess they can be deflated by accident?
But ultimately, the real culprit here is the NFL itself. Because the reason that the Patriots players are being castigated in the court of public opinion, the reason that the media has descended into a hot-bed of hot-takes, the reason that the wider NFL community is behaving so ridiculously, is because no one trusts the NFL to appropriately investigate this matter in a timely and responsible fashion.
Or in English – no one thinks the NFL will actually deliver truth or justice.
This extends far beyond the disgraceful handling of the Ray Rice matter. This is a pattern of mishandling of serious matters by the league. From its attempts to pretend that its sport didn’t cause concussion, to its utter mishandling of the aforementioned spygate incident, the NFL has shown time and time again that it is not capable of investigating internal matters properly. When Tom Brady spoke last Thursday, he said he hadn’t been approached by any investigation – despite it being five days after the allegations were made. On Friday the NFL claimed it had investigated over forty people in its investigation, but Peter King reports it’s unlikely that they will return a verdict prior to the Super Bowl.
This situation is pretty straightforward. Either someone you interview tells you something that gives you evidence that it was deliberate, or you have no evidence. In that situation, with no concrete evidence of malfeasance, a quick resolution with a fine and the stripping of a draft pick (the rules outline a minimum $25,000 fine for underinflated balls) would seem to be appropriate.
If the NFL had a person on staff capable of enforcing regulations appropriately, of investigating potential compliance with these regulations and educating teams properly about how to comply, these matters could be avoided altogether. Or if they were less interested in stopping people from making obscene gestures or wearing the wrong coloured shoes, maybe they could spend more time controlling the game.
Or maybe, hear me out here, provide balls for the game. It’s a multi-billion dollar organisation after all, it can possibly afford two dozen footballs.
Instead, the Patriots will have to bear the brunt of America’s moralising – from the media to the wider community – because the NFL is unable to properly regulate its own league. And that my friends, is the only threat to the integrity of the game.
If only someone would think of the children.
[i] Isn’t it amazing now that controversies not only get the requisite ‘gate’ suffix, but also a hashtag prefix? What a world we live in!
[ii] It was called Spygate then. So I guess to modern it up, #Spygate