[Editor's note: This story was originally published on Jan. 7, 2013, in wake of USC getting fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12 for a student manager deflating a football in a game against Oregon. Deflate-gate didn't start with the New England Patriots.]
In a small way, your college football team is likely cheating every game day. At least, that’s what a long-tenured college football equipment manager believes.
With the college football season coming to a close, we conducted a Q&A with an equipment manager about some of the white lies and misdemeanors that occur in the sport. Specifically, the focus was to revisit the football-deflating fiasco at USC earlier this season, when an allegedly rogue student manager for the Trojans was busted and dismissed for deflating footballs in a loss to Oregon.
While not exactly a high crime in the eyes of fans, tampering with balls is something the NCAA and member conferences take seriously. And it got us wondering how often such low-tech cheating takes place. The question brought us to a longtime equipment manager who agreed to talk about the sideline shenanigans – so long as we didn’t identify him or his team. What we can say is that his resume includes longtime employment in a power conference, with a program in perennial bowl contention.
Y!: Ball-tampering in general, it’s sort of a behind-the-scenes thing in college football, maybe like a major league pitcher scuffing a baseball. Were you guys surprised someone got caught deflating footballs?
A: Not really. Being around football, it’s just common. It’s just the way it works. Everybody does it. You know you’re not supposed to do it, but nobody thinks it’s that big of a deal. I don’t think anybody looks at it as cheating.
Y!: When you say everybody does it, that’s obviously an assumption.
A: Yeah, but I have talked to a lot of coaches since the USC thing happened, and they say it happens in all the places they have coached.
Y!: In theory, a softer ball is easier to hold onto and can prevent less fumbling. So, in theory, you deflate it because it makes easier to throw, carry and catch. If the other team isn’t deflating their balls, it gives you an edge. That’s not cheating?
A: I don’t think in the amount I have seen them changed that it really makes that big of a difference. I think it’s just a comfort thing for the quarterback.
Y!: So in football parlance it’s not exactly like stealing defensive signals. It’s not serious.
A: Not in my opinion. Both teams use their own set of footballs [on game day]. Both teams can do whatever they want with them – maybe not by the definition of the rule, but in reality both teams can do what they want. If you were sharing balls with the other team, then I can see why there would be something wrong with it.
Y!: You view it as, these are our balls, so we can do what we want with them.
Y!: So how does it work, exactly? Take me through the process of how you would deflate a ball.
A: Before the game the officials ask for like, six footballs. You provide them to the officials before the game in the locker room. Then they take a Sharpie and they mark them on the white strip with whatever marks or colors they recognize as saying, you know, ‘We’ve approved these balls.’ After that, you’re not supposed to touch them at all. But between your ball boys and the ball being on the sidelines – and then at halftime, when you control all of your own balls – there is ample opportunity to adjust them.
Y!: When you’re adjusting them, how do you know when a football is soft enough?
A: Every team I have been around, the quarterback position has their own manager. And it is that manager’s responsibility to go to the quarterback with around 12 balls and give the quarterback a chance to pick out the six balls they like. At that point, it’s more so the quarterback can get the feel for the leather of the ball. Then you give them to the official and after they are checked and you get them back, that’s when you adjust the inflation.
Y!: So it’s really something between the quarterback and their specific manager. But the quarterback takes part?
A: Yeah. After a while you get to know how the quarterback likes the inflation. It depends on the quarterback. They may give you free rein to adjust them yourself. Or you get some quarterbacks who may want to test the pressure themselves by gripping the ball and then kind of adjust it with you.
Y!: So the quarterback may say ‘Hey, I want this ball deflated,’ and then it gets taken care of?
A: Right. And I’ve seen quarterbacks on both extremes. Some don’t care at all and will play with a brick. Then you have other quarterbacks who are very particular and it has to be just right.
Y!: But going back to the rules, this is considered cheating. You’re not supposed to mess with the inflation. Do you think it’s generally assumed by each team that the opponent is probably deflating their set of footballs?
A: Yeah. Honestly, I don’t think anybody ever thinks twice about doing it. Although, if you’re in a position where you have to do it on the sideline, everybody is always aware that you can’t do it out in the open. You might have somebody stand in front of you when you’re taking air out, or you might sit down on the bench and kind of cover it up. But yeah, it’s normal. It’s kind of the game day process.
Y!: How do you deflate it?
A: For the helmets, there’s a handheld air pump. You squeeze it and it has a needle on the end. You squeeze it to pump it, it has a little knob on the side. You just turn the knob counterclockwise, and it lets air out. Every sideline has like 20 of those around, so it’s common for people to carry them.
Y!: Over the course of a season, how many times would you say, on average, you have deflated footballs?
A: At least once a week. On game day. Every week.
Y!: So every week, after that official marks that ball, you take it and start messing with the pressure in it?
A: Yeah. Again, that’s depending on the quarterback. Occasionally some quarterbacks don’t care, so you don’t have to do it. But for the quarterbacks who do care – and in my experience, that’s the majority of them – you’re doing it every week.
Y!: How did you learn to do something like this?
A: That’s a good question. I can’t even remember how I learned it. It’s not like there is a sit-down, tutorial session on it. I guess for me, it just had always gone on. It was just known, whoever was responsible for the quarterbacks, you are expected to go to him and discuss changes that had to be made with the ball.
Y!: Did a coach ever tell you that adjusting a ball is part of your job?
A: Let me put it this way, I’ve never had a coach sit there when it’s happening and take part in it. But that’s just because they assume that the manager and their quarterback will take care of it.
Y!: But how do you know the coaches are aware that this is happening?
A: Oh, I know they are aware. We’ve discussed it. I’ve had conversations with coaches about it. Even more so after the USC incident. For such a small story, I had a lot of conversations with coaches about the USC thing. But most of it was about what nonsense the USC thing was, because it’s just so run-of-the-mill. It happens everywhere. And of course, we were kind of laughing because of the whole ‘Oh, this poor student manager was solely responsible for deflating footballs.’ Everybody kind of read that and knew it was a big joke.
Y!: The idea of a rogue manager deflating balls on his own isn’t realistic?
A: There’s no way, no how, that a student manager does that on his own without someone else instructing him or knowing about it. Of course I wasn’t there, but that’s my opinion.
Y!: USC was fined $25,000 and the manager involved got fired. In your own situation, if someone gets caught, what happens?
A: In all the years, I’ve never seen anybody get caught in the process of it. Although on a small handful of occasions, an official might turn around mid-game throw a ball to the sideline and say ‘This ball needs to be inflated.’ But once the game gets started, unless it’s really noticeable, I don’t think they are paying attention to it.
Y!: Have there been any times where you thought you were caught?
A: No. The closest calls are those rare instances where you need to make an adjustment on the sideline. You’re just very careful about making sure nobody sees you doing it.
Y!: Is there a plan in place if someone catches you?
A: I guess you play through it some in your head. But I guess you have to have some sort of self-assurance that there’s a chain of command. It’s not my call. It’s not like it’s something you just make up and go do it on your own. I guess the feeling is that if you got caught, you could go to the coach and they won’t kill you over it – kind of like what happened to the guy at USC. I would hope that that wouldn’t happen. Honestly, I’d probably just play dumb.
Contact Yahoo! Sports investigative reporter Charles Robinson at WindyCityScribe@yahoo.com. He can also be followed on Twitter at @CharlesRobinson.
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