Sports talk is abuzz, as #deflategate has resurfaced in the media. In fact, the media buzz has not been limited to sports talk, as the mainstream media outlets have also covered the story extensively. The controversy has resurfaced because the “Wells Report” (named for lead investigator, Ted Wells) was recently completed and released. This is the official investigative report as commissioned by the NFL. All of this renewed coverage – and many of the opinions expressed – have been disappointing to hear, and are largely the inspiration for this post.
Deflategate, for those who don’t remember, is the New England Patriots’ involvement in deflating their footballs to below the league allowable PSI during this past season’s NFL playoffs, and possibly even longer. There were a lot of questions surrounding deflategate when it first happened, and even now the answers provided in the official report are not absolute. Was the deflation of the footballs accidental? Who was involved? How high up the chain of command was in the know? Is there a competitive advantage to having under-inflated footballs?
The report itself equivocates a bit, using phrases like “more probable than not” and “likely.” There are no absolutes, and there is no “smoking gun” or irrefutable evidence. That said, it does seem to be fairly damning to the Patriots, in particular Tom Brady. The report concludes that the balls almost certainly had to have been tampered with (deflated), that this deflation was likely an attempt to consciously break the rules, and that Tom Brady likely knew about this. But more so than the details within the report, I have been interested to hear much of the debate going on. There are so many facets to this story that it’s hard to focus on only one.
You cannot retro-actively justify cheating or bending the rules because, “Oh, well they probably would have won anyway.”
This one is probably the most nauseating and disturbing excuse that I continue to hear. You cannot say that because the Patriots beat the Colts so convincingly that the we can ignore any cheating that likely occurred. The cheating occurred before the Patriots knew that they were going to beat the Colts. The intent was to gain an advantage; knowing after the fact that they may not have needed the advantage doesn’t make it okay. It’s like giving yourself a head start in a race and then winning the race by much more than the head start and looking back and saying that it was a fair race because you won by more than the head start. Or like taking a test and cheating on several of the answers only to find out later on that you would have passed the test regardless of the several questions you cheated on. Does this mean that it’s okay to cheat as long as we can somehow justify the final result as, “Ehhh, they probably would have won the race / passed the test anyway…” And let’s not forget that the week before the Pats versus Colts, was a much closer game against the Ravens – a game in which the Ravens felt there might have been something wrong with the Patriots balls then as well. Regardless of how close the game is, is this the way that we want to try to govern sport, and is this the example that we are wanting sport to teach kids and people in general??
“It’s just a deflated football. We’re talking about footballs months after the fact!”
Of course we’re talking about footballs! The football is the most essential piece of equipment on the field; to tamper with the ball itself seems to be one of the most egregious ways to tamper with the game. And just because a few months have passed does not mean that we should just ignore that some form of cheating or rule bending very likely occurred. So just exactly how much of a competitive advantage would it be to have footballs under-inflated? Well it’s hard to say exactly, but many seem to agree that it would certainly help with grip on the ball. And some reports have shown what a low fumble rate the Patriots have had over the past several years – perhaps not a direct benefit to Brady, but an overall benefit nonetheless. And for those saying that you wouldn’t notice a difference in 1 or 2 PSI in a ball, you’re right – I wouldn’t. But Tom Brady, Manning, any of those individuals who are at such a level of expertise would very likely be able to notice even the slightest difference. It might also be worth considering this situation like a slugger corking his bat. It doesn’t turn a bad hitter into a home run hitter, but it can turn a great hitter into an elite hitter. Deflating footballs did not make Brady a great quarterback, but it may have given him just the slightest edge here or there.
” There’s no smoking gun; it’s all circumstantial evidence.”
This is interesting to me in that we now live in an age where we expect to have indisputable evidence of any and everything. We need/want to see video of Ray Rice actually hitting his girlfriend before we get outraged. We want to hear Donald Sterling say racist remarks on a recorded device before condemning him (despite decades of documented racist discriminatory practices). We let Johnny Football off the hook because there were some cell phone pictures as evidence, but not quite enough and no video evidence. In the case of deflategate, we have text messages specifically referencing Brady, and a preponderance of evidence putting him in the know and actively wanting the balls a specific way – a way that is outside the legal limitations. But no actual texts from him, no video, no pictures – no “smoking gun.” I find it very interesting that we have come to expect that kind of hard evidence all the time.
“All athletes and organizations try to push the envelope.”
I don’t disagree that athletes are always trying to push the envelope, so to speak. I don’t have a huge problem with the idea of “pushing the envelope,” but if you enter into rule-breaking territory then it’s no longer simply pushing the envelope. At that point it’s going outside of the allowed parameters. It’s cheating. And if you get caught, then you should have to suffer the consequences. Because other athletes or organizations are doing it (or other questionable practices) does not mean it’s okay. I’m no moral absolutist by any stretch, but I also don’t think you can allow rule-breaking behavior to continue without any sort of consequences. See corked bat example above – those who get caught get punished harshly.
People are just mad because it’s the Patriots and Tom Brady.
People are upset because it’s Tom Brady and the Patriots, yes. And that is because Tom Brady and the Patriots have enjoyed immense success, and now we have found strong evidence showing that they did so outside of the stated rules. Sure, there’s a lot of resentment, but I have also seen a lot of people standing up and defending the Patriots and Tom Brady. I’d like to think that I would be upset at any team who appears to be cheating and ends up having success either as a direct or indirect result of that unfair play.
You cannot hold #spygate against them.
Related to above. It’s the Patriots. We have not only the current controversy involving rule breaking activity, but also a history of the same organization with the same cast of characters partaking in rule breaking activity. Depending on how you count, a minimum of 2 and possibly all 4 of the Patriots Super Bowl victories now have documented cases of rule breaking. Yet somehow, they have managed to be viewed as a “class act” and as a well-run, successful organization. Many analysts and others even talk about “the Patriot Way” as a way to describe the way an organization should be run. Yet, I repeat at least 2 and possibly all 4 of their Super Bowl victories have documented incidents of rule-breaking. So in order to properly situate the current deflategate controversy, I would argue that you have to take this patterned history of behavior into account.
Am I a bitter Colts fan made at the Patriots for years of them owning us in the playoffs and regular season? Truth and transparency, there might be a little of that in me, but I have tried to approach this particular story with as little bias as possible. I’d like to think that the above points hold true regardless of any fanhood or hatred of a particular franchise. It seems nearly indisputable that the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs. And I don’t like to be so dismissive as “they won by so much it didn’t matter” or “everyone’s looking for an edge” or “you’re just jealous of Brady and the Patriots.” When you alter the most essential piece of equipment in the game beyond what the rules allow for, it deserves a punishment and it deserves to stick to Brady and the Patriots. Four Super Bowl wins, two-four documented instances of rule-breaking.
For a few good pieces, check here here and here.