On Deflated Balls & Manufactured Controversies


Not sure if you’ve heard yet, but the New England Patriots are in some measure of trouble after 11 of their 12 footballs were found to be under-inflated during last week’s AFC Championship massacre of win over the Colts. Altering the football — in this case by under-inflation — ostensibly makes the ball easier to grip and throw, especially during cold weather games. The thinking is that this can provide an unfair competitive advantage and/or is tantamount to cheating, which is something the Patriots have been accused of before.

You know what this all means, right? That’s right: it’s time for some good old-fashioned media histrionics!

Let’s start with our old friend Dan Wetzel, who has quickly gone from solid to insane in my book. His take is couched in a hilariously timely Spinal Tap reference:

On scale of 1-10, it’s 11 for Patriots in deflate-gate mess

See what I meant about the Spinal Tap reference? Great work, Wetzy! You’re like the Jimmy Durante of sportswriting.

Eleven? Eleven.

Eleven footballs the New England Patriots brought to Sunday’s AFC championship game have now been determined by the NFL to be under-inflated – by 2 full pounds – according to ESPN, which cited the preliminary findings of a league investigation.

Pay attention to that last part, because it’s the first of many descriptions that are meant to be evocative of a massive issue. “2 full pounds” sounds like a lot — at least, it does until you consider you’re talking about PSI and not literal weight.

The home team in an NFL game is required to provide 12 footballs (plus 12 backups). Yet almost all of them came in at the same, illegal level, 2 pounds lighter? The ball is supposed to be inflated to between 12.5 pounds and 13.5 pounds per square inch, so 16 percent below the legal minimum.

Remember before when I said to look out for misleadingly evocative imagery? Hope you paid attention, because it took three sentences before he did it again. “16 percent below the legal minimum” is a terrible way to look at this issue. One pound of weight is 16 ounces; 16% of 16 ounces is 2.56. If you didn’t have access to a digital scale and you were handed a 13.44-ounce bag and told it weighed 16 ounces, would you even notice? Moreover, unless you’re buying weed or pine nuts, would you even care?

I know that’s not exactly the point. Still, “16%” is a meaningless thing here.

That’s not a little. Not the number of under-inflated balls, not the amount they are under-inflated. Some gamesmanship of trying to pump up or down a ball is understood. Everyone is always trying to gain an edge.

Cool, agreed. It’s kind of a bummer when it’s laid out so transparently, but that’s what all NFL teams are trying to do at the end of the day, right? Everyone wants to gain an edge, even if it’s just a psychological one. Gamesmanship forever!

This isn’t that. This isn’t a coincidence. And, because it’s the Patriots and because it’s in the run-up to the Super Bowl at the end of a season when the NFL has been consumed by scandals, it’s a huge story. Fair or not, that’s life in the big city. Bill Belichick and company will have to deal with it.

Siiiiiiiigh. So that’s what you meant: it’s not mere gamesmanship in this case, no. Because the Patriots are involved — because Bill Belichick is the coach and Boston is a “big city” — it’s clearly an institutionalized Patriots conspiracy meant to cheat in any and all ways possible. Fair or not, that’s life in the big city, guys!

Also, don’t think I didn’t notice the casual way in which “deflated ball controversy” got grouped in with “a season when the NFL has been consumed by scandals.” The biggest “scandals” they’ve been consumed with this year have been Ray Rice and Greg Hardy’s domestic violence cases and Adrian Peterson’s child abuse charges. Lumping those things in with this is so offensive I don’t even know where to begin. What’s next, comparing this to Penn State’s child abuse scandal?

Wow. Just….wow.

Unless there is a reasonable explanation, and neither New England nor the NFL has offered one yet, the Patriots should worry about losing draft picks as punishment. Their reputation may never be fully recovered.

Right? The Patriots have a reputation to consider! They may never be able to recover from such a crushing blow! Like they didn’t recover from Spygate. Or Aaron Hernandez’s murder trial. And why Michael Vick never found another job after his dog-fighting ring was busted and he went to prison. And why Ray Lewis never got a job with the Ravens or with ESPN after his numerous legal run-ins. And why Mike Tyson zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sorry, dozed off for a second there. I must have gotten sleepy while thinking of the limitless number of times an athlete/franchise has been forgiven for their indiscretions. America is a forgiving place — especially when you can throw a football or sack a QB or you promise not to murder any more dogs.

Forget overturning the victory over the Indianapolis Colts. It’s not happening per NFL rules. It’ll be New England-Seattle on Feb. 1 in Arizona — but not before Belichick’s sure-to-be-legendary Media Day session on Tuesday. And Tom Brady’s, too, because if anyone would know about this, it’s the quarterback.

Weirdly, this is the best argument of the whole piece, and it’s tucked away as almost a sidenote: if anyone is implicitly responsible here, it’s Tom Brady. At the very least, he had to have noticed the difference in the footballs, and it’s reasonable to think he had something to do with it. How hard will the media go after him for this? I’m basing this off of his handsome charm and three Super Bowl rings, but my guess is: not very.

Anyway, then there’s some boring stuff about the referees and the rulebook. Yawn City. Let’s get back to Dan Wetzel’s personal anti-Patriots crusade:

Whenever they provide an explanation, it should be considered. It’s worth noting that so far, the team hasn’t denied anything. It has just said it would cooperate fully with the league, like it had an option to not cooperate.

See? It’s fun to be reasonable! Of course there should be an investigation, and of course we should withhold judgment until we have all the facts. Easier said than done sometimes, sure, but the media has the opportunity to utilize their influence by reacting calmly and rationally to such controversies, setting a better public standard for how we all react. Now if we could just —

Regardless, we’re talking about 11 footballs. This isn’t one that was deflated because Rob Gronkowski spiked it too hard. This isn’t a couple that might have been defective. This isn’t the weather causing just their footballs, but not the Colts’, to lose pressure. This isn’t … it doesn’t matter.

Eleven. Eleven under-inflated footballs on a night when heavy rain made everything wet and a ball that is easier to grip makes passing, catching and dealing with snaps and handoffs easier. Eleven on a night when they had an offensive lineman catch a TD.

— or, you know, they could do that.

We could wait for the facts, or we could just throw our hands in the air and say “it doesn’t matter” what the facts are because there’s clearly no reasonable explanation for things. Now, this seems like as good a time as any to mention that I’m not exactly on New England’s side here — cheating is probably more common in the game than we’d all like, but it certainly taints things a little bit, especially if it’s this brazen. Still, the true impact of under-inflated footballs seems nebulous at best. How much of an impact on the game could they really have had? To me, it’s a little like using a corked bat: yes, it’s considered cheating, but on what percent of plays is it going to be enough of an edge to materially impact the outcome? New England should be punished if they acted outside of the rules, but this is hardly a major scandal.

Anyway, let’s soldier on:

It was obvious enough someone from the Colts – an equipment man it seems – realized it after an interception brought one of New England’s footballs to its sideline. It’s why Indy complained.

How does the equipment man notice and grow troubled by it but not a team full of refs?

Maybe — and this is just hypothetical, of course — 2 full pounds/16% of a normal football’s worth of pressure doesn’t feel much different unless you’re specifically looking for it. The officials’ job after the play is to take the ball, toss it to the proper place and make sure the next play is set up — they’re hardly fondling the things out there, so it’d probably take a pretty egregious deflation to garner their attention. The Colts’ equipment man has a lot more time to handle the ball without his mind being preoccupied by getting ready for the next play. He’d also have a handful of Indy’s own balls handy for a quick side-by-side comparison. Is this really that hard to put together?

Buckle up though, folks. Here’s where things get really crazy:

Then, of course, there is this: Why the heck would the Patriots even bother?

They beat the tar out of the Colts on Sunday, 45-7. They beat the tar out of the Colts in November, 42-20. They beat the tar out of the Colts in last year’s playoffs, 43-22.

The Patriots can pretty much beat the tar out of the Colts anytime they want. They rushed for 657 yards and 13 touchdowns in those games. They could carry a cannon ball around and win the game. The contests were in three different weather situations – including inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

It wasn’t the ball that caused New England to advance to the Super Bowl. It was its offensive line and defensive secondary and the frightening prospect of Brady getting to use play-action. The Pats win no matter what.

So why do this, why risk this, why care about the ball?

Hilariously, this misses the point so badly I’d have thought it was an Adam Vinatieri field goal. Sure, the Patriots steamrolled the Colts, but what if they hadn’t? What if it’d been a close game that was decided by <7 points? Doesn’t that alter the nature of the controversy pretty significantly? Why is the fact that the outcome was never in doubt matter in this case?

As for why bother doing it: the answer is probably just a psychological advantage. Players in any sport will do whatever they can to ensure they’re feeling their best for a game. If Tom Brady thought using a ceremonial katana to sacrifice an orphan in a Steve Grogan jersey would give him a 5% bump in completion percentage, all of the orphanages in the New England area would be shut down. Players who feel good believe they’ll play better. We see this all the time.

Get ready, though. We’re about to reach the crescendo of our hysterical symphony:

The Patriots should know better if only because they had to realize this becomes a far, far bigger story because of who they are and the history they have.

So many big scandals come from small things, forgettable things, stupid things. Nixon was winning the 1972 presidential election without Watergate. They broke in anyway.

It snowballs from there.

“It snowballs from there.” Take note of the time and day, people. Remember where you are, what you’re wearing and what the weather is like, because a grown man/journalist just compared the deflation of footballs in an NFL football game to a hotel break-in/illegal surveillance plan orchestrated by President Nixon. Remember earlier when that one guy compared this to a Paterno-level scandal? This isn’t much different (although it is far, far more appropriate). Deflated footballs are Watergate! Stealing signs is the Gulf of Tonkin incident! Using an illegal stick is the Iran-Contra affair! Diving to draw a red card is 9/11! Sports matter this much and more!

What’s more: that first guy’s reaction was on Twitter. This is in a published (and theoretically edited) national column on Yahoo Sports. Journalistic integrity FTW!

The rest of the article is more finger-wagging at the Patriots, which I guess is fine. Still, would it kill us to employ a little bit of context? For starters, plenty of people have come out asking what the big deal is. The first example I found is Brad Johnson, Super Bowl-winning QB with the Buccaneers back in the day. He paid a couple of NFL ballboys to scuff up the balls before the game so that they’d be worked in by the time the game started.

Dwayne Allen, TE for the Colts, blamed no one but the Colts:

AllenBrandon Browner, DB for the Patriots, had an even stronger take:


Both are right, of course. The Colts didn’t belong in this game, the Patriots defense played outstanding football and the overall impact on the game because of deflated footballs is negligible (or at the very least impossible to really determine). By all means punish the Patriots, sure…but let’s not overreact any more than we already have. This isn’t even on par with the worst cheating scandals the NFL has ever seen, let alone worst scandals they’ve experienced overall — and it certainly pales in comparison to any real societal issues like domestic violence and sexual assault. Grouping them together for the sake of manufacturing outrage and attracting page views is pretty awful, plain and simple.

(Top image via)

On Deflated Balls & Manufactured Controversies

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