Appropriately for the assault on intelligence that would become known as deflate-gate, the first test of the footballs came with an abundance of suspicion and a lack of knowledge. The NFL never has been much for book learnin’, after all.
An intern in the Indianapolis Colts’ equipment department was handed a just intercepted New England Patriots football in the 2014 AFC championship game and told to check the air pressure. Right there on the sideline the “test” was done and, as the Colts suspected, it came in below the NFL minimum 12.5 pounds per square inch.
Up the chain of command went the discovery, all the way to NFL executives in a box high above Gillette Stadium. The Pats were busted, dead busted. Finally, they had that cheating Bill Belichick by the, ah, footballs.
“We weighed the balls,” the NFL’s Mike Kensil soon told the Patriots, according to a Sports Illustrated. “You are in big [expletive] trouble.”
The fact that the initial test – which has nothing to do with weight – was done outdoors in 48 degrees temperature, nearly two hours after the balls were loosely measured to be about 12.5 psi in the warmth of a locker room, apparently escaped everyone involved. Scientifically, what would have been notable is if the footballs weren’t below 12.5, notably measuring in the 11s. Anything else would have disproved an agreed upon fact – a law – first stated by a Frenchman named Emile Clapeyron way back in 1834 and supported by every scientist to walk the Earth since.
There were no scientists in Foxborough that night. There were guys like Kensil, a former New York Jets executive since reassigned by the NFL from game-day duties. Most notably, there was NFL executive vice president Troy Vincent, who immediately spearheaded the investigation into what the league believed was a massive cheating operation when it was just PV = nRT occurring. Vincent later acknowledged that at the time he’d never heard of Ideal Gas Law.
If Vincent, Kensil – or anyone else – had studied physics, deflate-gate likely would have (or should have) ended before it even began. They either would have laughed at the Colts’ outdoor test or understood time was needed for footballs to re-acclimate to indoor conditions at halftime.
Instead it took 544 days, from that AFC title game following the 2014 season to Friday, when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady announced he wouldn’t pursue a virtually hopeless attempt to get the Supreme Court of the United States to take a case that is now about arbitration law, rule of shop and industrial justice, not what actually happened that night.
This closes one of the most bizarre scandals in the history of the NFL, a story so mind-numbingly dumb because it required a rejection of facts, math and science in exchange for media leaks, manipulated testimony, hard-headedness and whatever else inspires commissioner Roger Goodell’s office.
It produced plenty comedy of course.
You couldn’t invent the nickname “The Deflator” or the fact he couldn’t get it right whether he went to the bathroom in a urinal or stall. He was a bumbling fall guy for the league straight from central casting. Then there was the time head coach Bill Belichick cited “My Cousin Vinny” in a defensive news conference – “I would not say that I am Mona Lisa Vito of the football world,” he noted, although many worshiping Patriots fans beg to differ.
There were dozens of outrageous headlines, a scandal out of the New York tabloids’ wildest dreams (Brady: “My Balls Are Perfect.”) There were four hearings over this nonsense in an actual federal court. Imagine that. One included a courtroom sketch artist who somehow managed to make Brady look emaciated and ugly, who subsequently gave sheepish interviews to the tabloids explaining herself. There was the time a seventh-grader won his school science fair proving the NFL was wrong and the footballs were never unnaturally deflated. His name: Ben Goodell.
It may have been stupid, but it was entertaining.
There was the time the NFL rewrote game procedure for the entire 2015 season, requiring referees to measure and record pregame and, at times halftime and postgame pressure levels. This was certain to show Ideal Gas Law exists, perhaps only to Goodell’s surprise. Except by season’s end the league conveniently declared it didn’t keep the data or never meant to … or something like that. It never would really say.
In the initial hours there was misunderstood, or wholly invented, pressure readings leaked to favored media causing the prejudicial stories to run against the Patriots. It showed the lockstep manner in which the league office and the media operate and it left the majority of the public convinced of New England’s guilt. The NFL refused to provide even the Pats with accurate data, cutting off any counter to the narrative from occurring, even as the franchise plead for accurate information.
“What is unconscionable to me,” Patriots executive Stacey James emailed the NFL in the weeks after the story broke, “is that the league holds data that could very well exonerate us from any wrongdoing … but the league refuses to provide the data.” Or another email from team counsel Robyn Glaser begging the NFL to fix ridiculous media stories: “[W]e hereby DEMAND that the misinformation in this ESPN piece be formally and publicly corrected.”
The NFL did nothing. One of the league’s actual teams not only couldn’t get the facts, it was actually fed misinformation that was even more damning than reality. It’s a heck of an operation there on Park Avenue.
“What Tom has had to endure throughout this 18-month ordeal has been, in my opinion, as far removed from due process as you could ever expect in this country,” Patriots owner Robert Kraft said in a statement Friday. Considering he’s one of the owners and he begrudgingly accepted the NFL’s sanctions (albeit later apologizing for doing so), you’d think this was fixable.
What’s clear is it isn’t. Goodell has immense power over the players courtesy of the collective-bargaining agreement. He can pretty much do anything he pleases by any means he chooses. That extends to knocking around owners, even one as notable as Kraft.
When the Pats pressed for the leaks to end and the truth revealed, the NFL doubled-down on more negative leaks. None was more damaging than Brady giving them a gift when he destroyed his cell phone, which once leaked to ESPN without context became a nebulous cover-up plot from which the quarterback would never recover.
All of it helped explain the predictable media wailing – Belichick should be banned from the Super Bowl, Tom Brady should be disqualified for the Hall of Fame and even direct questions about how this might affect the children of America.
“This isn’t ISIS,” Brady said.
Then there was Ted Wells’ report, which cost millions and appeared written by a nervous eighth-grader, repeating itself over and over to add bulk and hit page minimums even if there was no perspective. There are no transcripts or even direct quotes in it from the key figures, most notably the locker room workers. You had to take the NFL at its word over any paraphrases and what they meant. Of course, Goodell was later caught misrepresenting, if not making up, Brady testimony, a fact that came to light only because a federal judge, against the NFL’s intense objection, unsealed the testimony.
Common behavior, such as Brady doling out memorabilia to workers, was deemed a payout. Brady was somehow deemed guilty when he didn’t communicate with staffers and then guilty when he did. Bits and pieces of info were taken, always in negative light, but little context surrounding it was offered. Everything was thin, but perfect to run along the ticker and look horrible. Who the heck would read that entire monstrosity? The NFL tried to claim Wells’ report was an independent investigation, even after it was revealed its general counsel edited it.
As for the heart of the matter, the science, the NFL made a dubious hire of Exponent, a favored player of corporate America that once famously concluded second-hand smoke wasn’t dangerous. Not even Exponent could deny Ideal Gas Law, it just concluded that a few of the footballs were outside of the allowed variance. This is probably because the pregame balls were never set exactly at 12.5 and thus any conclusions were useless – no one in the history of the league ever really cared previously about psi levels. No one should ever draw any inferences from any of this. Actual scientists were aghast, but the league didn’t care. Again, book learnin’.
Exponent tried to say the footballs that were below the natural range were signs of tampering, but they were mostly off by such minuscule amounts that any smart scientist would conclude that there was no benefit gained from such tiny tampering. It actually proved the Patriots’ innocence.
Why would anyone take a fraction of a pound of air out of some footballs but leave the others alone? What kind of plot is that?
It didn’t matter. This wasn’t about anything other than achieving Kensil’s initial assessment and making sure the Patriots were in big (expletive) trouble. The Deflator. The cell phone. A couple unrelated text messages. That was enough. Four-game suspension for Brady. A lost first-round draft pick for the team this year, and a fourth-rounder in 2017. A public that doesn’t care if no one ever has or likely ever will prove the footballs were unnaturally deflated.
As time has gone on and the information could be peer reviewed, no scientist or professor not paid by the NFL has come out and said the league got it right (an early and shallow Bill Nye the Science Guy publicity effort doesn’t count). None have duplicated the experiment and found something not easily explained. The peer review is thus far unanimous. Even the NFL had to pretend it didn’t do its own study or that Brady’s stats remained the same.
Nearly two-dozen engineering and physics professors even filed a brief in federal court trying to clear up the ignorance of science at the heart of the matter.
“Although sensationalized in the press, it was no surprise to any scientist,” they wrote. “… so-called ‘deflation’ happens naturally …”
Laugh or cry, but no one cares. It wasn’t much fun for the Patriots or Brady or physics professors, but it was a wild diversion for everyone else, one New York Post back page pull quote at a time.
“I don’t want anyone touching the balls … I don’t want them rubbing them.”
It’s every scientist in the country vs. Roger Goodell and yet, in the end, Goodell won.
Whatever it is he does, he’s damn good at it.