A year after deflate-gate ballooned, science shows shame of it all

Dan Wetzel

One year ago this week, an Indianapolis Colt named D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a Tom Brady pass in the AFC championship game.

The ball soon found its way into the hands of Brian Seabrooks, the Colts' assistant equipment manager, who was suspicious of its inflation level. He quickly had an intern measure it from the sideline (and in the approximately 48-degree temperature of Foxborough, Mass.). When it came in under the NFL minimum 12.5 pounds per square inch, everyone from Colts executives to officials and even an NFL vice president believed it was proof of blatant cheating.

The entire case worked backward from there, even if science says the psi level was probably exactly where it should naturally be and thus nothing unnatural, let alone nefarious, was occurring.

Science, of course, meant nothing in this case. At least not at the time.

The football's size doesn't seem to matter to Tom Brady. (AP)
The football's size doesn't seem to matter to Tom Brady. (AP)

What mattered was either the willful rejection or complete ignorance of it. No one in power that night in New England apparently knew what Ideal Gas Law was, let alone how it worked.

So deflate-gate was born.

One year later, Brady and the Patriots return to the AFC championship game on Sunday in Denver. Since that fateful moment an intern tested the football, Brady has gone 15-4 on the field and 1-0 in federal court. He has captured a Super Bowl and thrown 44 touchdowns against nine interceptions (with the NFL watching the footballs).

And despite the NFL stripping New England of a first-round pick, fining it $1 million and millions of fans still believing the story, you actually have to wonder if deflate-gate is finally dead … at least to anyone still paying attention. Namely, there appears to be a scientific consensus, if not unanimous opinion, that those footballs were never illegally deflated.

Most of the attention on the scandal has involved the circumstantial evidence, the leaking of false and prejudicial information, the invention of testimony, the federal court drama, the humor, the alibis, the excuses, the "deflator," New York tabloid headlines, the everything.

It's been wild, an all-time great media soap opera. It was easy to believe something happened. Yet early on scientists began arguing that the entire thing was really a misunderstanding of Ideal Gas Law. Bill Belichick even tried to explain it.

The problem at the time is the arguments were being made with false data supplied by the NFL (which vastly overstated the numbers) and no information on how it was collected or any surrounding circumstances. That allowed someone such as "Bill Nye the Science Guy" to counter Belichick's rudimentary defense in an analysis so shallow and unscientific it was comical (it was literally on "Funny or Die").

It was widely distributed, though, and most heard that and gave up on the science, tuning out howls from the Patriots.

The NFL brought in the group Exponent to handle its scientific analysis of the game balls. Exponent, of course, has been accused for decades for being hired by corporations to study and provide favorable finding on things such as the dangers of second-hand cigarette smoke, asbestos, possible automobile design flaws and even whether the Exxon Valdez needed a second hull. Exponent denies this and says its science is sound.

In this case, even Exponent acknowledged that it couldn't "determine with absolute certainty whether there was or was not tampering." That didn't matter to the NFL. Exponent couldn't rule out foul play, either.

Roger Goodell and Pats owner Robert Kraft don't see eye-to-eye over deflate-gate. (AP)
Roger Goodell and Pats owner Robert Kraft don't see eye-to-eye over deflate-gate. (AP)

However, once Ted Wells' report was published last spring, including an appendix showing Exponent's work, actual scientists started doing what actual scientists do: review the conclusions of a new study.

As time has allowed more serious analysis to come in, the results have been an overwhelming destruction of the conclusions of Wells, Exponent and the consulting work of Princeton professor Daniel Marlow.

It's been from all directions: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (multiple studies), Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Chicago, Boston College, the University of Nebraska, the University of Illinois, the University of New Hampshire, Bowdoin College, Rockefeller University, where a Nobel Prize winner couldn't have lampooned it more viciously, and so on and so on.

Then there were unaffiliated retired scientists, climate experts, professional labs, even the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, which crushed the science of Wells' report. A fourth-grader in Sacramento discredited it for her school science fair.

And these are just some of the ones that received media attention.

About the only counter argument is all these people must all be Patriots fans (they aren't). Even if they all were, they'd be opening themselves up to scientific ridicule for their conclusions from other scientists who aren't Patriots fans.

Only no one is ridiculing them. No one is criticizing these critics. It doesn't appear anyone is fighting back.

Maybe there is a professor or study out there that, with the currently available information, defends Exponent, Wells and the NFL, but there aren't any readily found on the Internet or in scientific journals. They certainly aren't making themselves easy to find.

If every smart scientist who studied this case (and isn't affiliated with the league) says nothing happened, then how long does everyone keep saying something did?

The most damning rebuke is from Dr. John Leonard, one of numerous professors at MIT who have tackled this case. In a popular YouTube video, the Philadelphia Eagles fan doesn't just blast Exponent's conclusions but shows the flawed methodology that failed to account for how atmospheric pressure impacted the footballs that were measured at halftime. He basically calls them hacks, and when he fixes their mistake, he essentially closes the argument out. In the months-old video he asks Exponent to explain itself. To date, it hasn't. Apparently no one has disagreed with Leonard's findings.

"The Colts' balls were as much out of range as the Patriots' balls," Leonard told a class on the deflate-gate at UNH, according to the Boston Globe. "It's pretty much an open-and-shut case, but somehow [commissioner Roger] Goodell never understood it, and still doesn't to this day."

What Goodell undoubtedly understands is that for regular people, science is confusing. And since special interests have politicized it on certain subjects, a lot of Americans are quick to reject it or doubt it, no matter how absurd doing so is. In this case, the problem with science is it required time, study and patience. Deflate-gate was about winning the news cycle.

A year ago there were rants about how Belichick should be suspended for the Super Bowl and Brady barred from the Hall of Fame. An ESPN analyst actually choked up on the air, it was all just too much. Meanwhile, Brady was asked about the impact on innocent children.

A year later?

The only ones shouting seem to be the scientists. Not sure if anyone is still listening, though.