Football has always been one of America’s favorite sports to watch and it has a huge impact on modern day culture. At the Jan. 18 AFC Championship Game, suspicions arose that the New England Patriots had knowingly used footballs that had not been inflated to the standards of the National Football League (NFL), all in an apparent attempt to disadvantage their opponents, the Indianapolis Colts. As news broke of this controversy, it was given the moniker “Deflategate” throughout the media, in the tradition of many press-concocted “gates”—Climategate, Monicagate, Nipplegate—that serve in reference to the 1970s Watergate scandal. Alternately, the controversy has been dubbed “Ballghazi” in certain partisan sectors of the media that prefer to hammer the Obama Administration for its supposed negligence in the Benghazi attack. This sample essay explores te details of Deflategate and efforts to prevent similar scandals in the future.
NFL rules dictating gameplay
Official NFL policy stipulates that footballs must be inflated within a pressure range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch (PSI) (“Official NFL Playing Rules 3”). The NFL determine, when a ball is underinflated, a player might find it easier to hold, toss, and catch, particularly during games when the weather is cold and wet. However, if a football is pumped with air inside a warm building and taken out to a field under cold temperatures, the gauge pressure inside that ball could diminish.
Throughout most of the league’s history, it was customary for footballs in a given game to be supplied by the home team, but that rule was changed in 2006. Today, each team must provide its own balls while playing offense; a team only handles the opponent’s ball in fumbles and interceptions. The rule change was initially lobbied before the league’s competition committee by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning, who both felt that quarterbacks should be able to use the most personally suited footballs.
Allegations against the Patriots
Initial reports on the controversy indicated that the Patriots were believed to have under-inflated their footballs to get an edge over two opposing teams: the Indianapolis Colts and the Baltimore Ravens. The latter’s head coach, John Harbaugh, withdrew his team from the allegations, but Colts general manager Ryan Grigson pressed the NFL for a probe into the matter.
Early on in the AFC Championship Game, Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson caught an interception thrown by Brady, who was accused of prior knowledge of Deflategate. At halftime, Jackson placed the football—now a keepsake of his play—in the hands of his team’s equipment supervisor. While it was initially indicated that the linebacker sensed something wrong about the ball from the beginning, he later denied any such suspicion. However, as soon as the ball was examined by NFL officials, they determined that it was under-inflated by league standards, along with eleven other Patriots’ footballs. Alas, it was difficult to prove whether pregame tampering had been a factor since team officials don’t log their balls beforehand for PSI.
It has been rumored that 12 substitute balls were used by the Patriots in lieu of their main set for the game’s second half, during which no further issues arose regarding air pressure. In another report, it was insisted that the Patriots’ main set was found to be under-inflated, but that the situation was rectified at halftime. Also unverified is whether or not the Colts’ balls were given PSI inspections at the break.
In any case, the team under suspicion handily defeated their opponents in one of the most lopsided scores in recent memory. During the first half, the Patriots led the game 17 to 7 over the Colts, who failed to score further points as the New England team claimed an additional 28 points during the second half. In the end, the Patriots beat their rivals 45 to 7 (“Patriots advance to Super Bowl”).
The Deflategate investigation
With suspicion hovering over the Patriots, a probe was launched by the National Football League in regards to the supposedly under-pumped balls. During a Jan. 22 news conference, the beleaguered team’s head coach, Bill Belichick, denied having any knowledge of the issue until the following day’s coverage but did promise that his team would fully comply with the league as the probe commenced. While the coach said that he found the news “shocking,” he also insisted that football air pressure is not one of his areas of expertise (Pepin). Regarding the matter of Brady’s football preferences, Belichick deferred that question to the quarterback himself.
“I think we all know that quarterbacks, kickers, specialists have certain preferences on the footballs. They know a lot more than I do. They’re a lot more sensitive to it than I am. I hear them comment on it from time to time, but I can tell you, and they will tell you, that there’s never any sympathy whatsoever from me on that subject… Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something that he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide.” (Pepin)
Holding his own press conference on the same day, Brady adamantly denied the allegations and furthermore insisted that he was never notified by the NFL about their probe.
Soon enough, the rumor mill blew up more dust. According to one unverified claim, an unnamed NFL insider confessed that most of the Patriots’ balls had been deflated to 11.5 PSI (Perry), somewhat closer to the required minimum than previously believed. As another rumor would have it, there was indeed tampering, but it involved a third party. As stated in a Jan. 27 report:
The NFL received surveillance footage from the night of the game that showed a locker room attendant taking a dozen footballs from each team—for reasons unknown—into the bathroom for a minute and a half (“NFL looking at Patriots attendant”).
Since the league doesn’t actually log game balls for PSI, there’s no solid evidence that the Patriots’ footballs were within or below the 12.5-13.5 range before the game. However, referee Bill Vinovich maintained that they do test the balls and that all are filled to 13.0 (Reiss). The referee also insisted that league official Dean Blandino tested a few balls, and on that basis had at least one of the balls adjusted, but that you wouldn’t be able to recognize the difference without putting undue force on the ball. Furthermore, Vinovich observed that in the spontaneous setting of a game, the players are simply going to play ball. The thing that players are least likely to do is second-guess a given ball’s air pressure; especially not in cold weather.
Dean tested a couple in the office and had one under-inflated and one to specs, and you really couldn’t tell the difference unless you actually sat there and tried to squeeze the thing or did some extraordinary thing. If someone just tossed you the ball, especially in 20-degree weather, you’re going to pretty much play with the ball. They are going to be hard. You’re not going to notice the difference. (Reiss)
In any case, the story sparked a media firestorm. Some earlier Patriots controversies have likely fanned the flames; some bogus, others with merit. An example of media bias that caused outrage among fans include:
- Spygate. The Patriots earlier “gate” centered on a Sept. 9, 2007 incident where the team videotaped—in a breach of league policy—signals made from the sideline by the defensive coach of the New York Jets. It was also reported that the Patriots had taped practice sessions held by their opponents, but this was untrue.
- The spate of recent controversies centered on the personal lives of various NFL players; though none are with the Patriots, scandals involving Ray Rice’s domestic assault and Adrian Peterson’s child mishandling have tarnished the league in the public’s eye.
Timing is likely to have also been a factor in the media’s fixation on Deflategate, since the story first broke at a low ebb in the sporting news cycle, coming as it did during the two-week layover between the championships and the Super Bowl.
According to some sources, the outcry didn’t extend far enough. In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, commentators like AP national writer Paul Newberry opined that Belichick should be barred from the event. Others, like ESPN sports commentator Roxanne Jones, insisted that the Patriots as a team should be benched for the big game. Taking things even further, Yahoo! Sports’ Dan Wetzel castigated the NFL for its delay of the probe until after the big game as if to go easy on the Patriots. Nonetheless, there were some who took the opposite stance, including CNN’s Mike Downey, who implicated the media for its wall-to-wall coverage of what he considered a “phony scandal” (Downey).
NFL has impacted society in many ways but known like Deflategate. As the scandal rages onward, Deflategate is also drawing fire from political pundits, including right-wing radio host Rush Limbaugh, who lambasted the media for allowing the topic to eclipse recent world events, such as the passing of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The scandal has also made for comedic fodder of late, most notably in the Belichick/Brady satirical sketch on the Jan. 24 episode of Saturday Night Live.
“Official NFL Playing Rules 3. Rule 2. The Ball”. NFL.com. NFL Enterprises LLC. n.d. PDF file. 6 Feb. 2015.
“Patriots advance to Super Bowl in AFC Championship rout.” NFL.com. NFL Enterprises LLC. n.d. Web. 6 Feb. 2015
Pepin, Matt. “Bill Belichick says he has ‘no explanation’ for Deflategate.” BostonGlobe.com. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC. 22 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 Feb. 2015.
Perry, Phil. “PFT: Patriots footballs may have been closer to 11.5 PSI.” Comcast SportsNet-CSNNE.com. The NBC Sports Group. 25 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 Feb. 2015.
“NFL looking at Patriots attendant.” ESPN.com. ESPN Internet Ventures. 27 Jan. 2015. Web. 6 Feb. 2015.
Reiss, Mike. “Learning more on how referees test and document football air pressure.” ESPN.com. ESPN Internet Ventures. 29 Jan. 2015. Web. 2 Feb. 2015.
Downey, Mike. “Deflate-gate: Will the air go out of a phony scandal?” CNN.com. Turner Broadcasting System. 23 Jan. 2015. Web. 5 Feb. 2015