In 2015, the New England Patriots defeated the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship. During the game, a Colts player intercepted a pass. While it remains unclear who was the first to realize something was wrong, someone on the Colt’s sideline realized that there was something wrong with the ball and reported it to the NFL.
During halftime, game officials checked the 12 footballs that the Patriots had brought for their team use, and while most of the balls were just barely underinflated, one was more than two PSI off the mark.
This is technically cheating. Having a slightly-underinflated ball means that the quarterback can get a slightly better grip on it. Having a better grip means that he’ll throw it better. Having better-thrown balls results in better outcomes. The ensuing scandal came to be known as “Deflategate.”1
However, the advantage gained is likely to be slight. There’s also some question of whether Tom Brady, probably the best NFL quarterback of all time, needed any help in order to be successful.
Furthermore, independent testing by HeadSmart Labs revealed that the conditions on the field that day, cold and wet, could result in a 1.8 PSI drop if the balls were inflated in a warm, dry locker room and then brought outside. Which is exactly what happened.
So, there are certainly questions about intent.
Why would someone do something that would have so little impact, but with massive implications if caught?
There were also questions about the weather.
Can the weather alone account for the balls’ deflation? The NFL apparently didn’t think so. The weird variations in PSI, apparently unexplainable due to natural phenomena, had caught their attention.
That’s rather flimsy evidence, but NFL has shown repeatedly that it doesn’t need evidence in order to do stuff. So, they hired a lawyer who had worked for the league on a previous case, Ted Wells, to try and figure out what happened.
Of course, the Deflategate investigation was handled poorly.
One section of the report, about a text conversation between two equipment managers, is portrayed as a scheme to deflate the footballs, despite the fact that the cited text messages reference inflating the balls to the size of “watermelons,” in revenge for poor treatment from Tom Brady.
Watermelons are much larger than footballs, so if you wanted to do that, would you:
- Overinflate the football?
- Underinflate the football
- Do nothing, because doing either might cost your job and get the team in trouble?
You can choose a or c. Ted Wells chose b, saying that the provided explanation about the joke was not “plausible or consistent with common sense.” Despite the fact that the two men make constant references to overinflating footballs, comparing them to the larger rugby balls and watermelons, Wells somehow concludes that they conspired to deflate the balls.2 Maybe Deflategate is better understood as “Inflategate.”
Since implicating two equipment managers is no fun, the report decided to rope in Tom Brady, despite the fact that they can only inference that he was aware of what was going on.
So, the NFL suspends him for four games, of course. He could have avoided the suspension if he would have said that the two managers had altered the balls without his knowledge. Brady declined, saying “There’s no way I’m gonna ruin these guys for something I believe they didn’t do.”
Which has to make you respect the dude.
This whole situation is so ridiculous that not just one, but at least 8 conspiracy theories spawned around the event. Here’s a list of them:
- “Roger Goodell came down hard on Tom Brady over Deflategate to overcome the perception that the league disciplined black players more harshly than white ones.”
- Roger Goodell came down hard “on Deflategate over a perception that he came down too light on them for Spygate.”
- Suspending Tom Brady was a ploy aimed at the next CBA, the agreement between players and the owners that is periodically renegotiated. By showing that they could suspend anyone, anytime, they were hoping that the players would forgo additional financial compensation to take that power away.
- Suspending Tom Brady, and the anthem protests, are a way of keeping player health concerns, like concussions and CTE, out of the spotlight.
- At least one of the balls in question, the one that was more than 2 PSI off, was deflated by the Colts in an attempt to frame the Patriots. The likely football was the intercepted balls, which cameras caught being passed off to a locker room attendant.
- Mike Kensil, formerly with the Jets, now the NFL’s vice president of game operations, personally inspected the alleged irregular balls and took the opportunity to make sure that they failed the test.
- The Patriots deflated their own balls and hoped to get caught. No, really. The Patriots had signed LeGarrette Blount one day after he threw a temper tantrum and got cut by the Steelers. Apparently getting investigated for deflating balls is less of a concern than getting investigated for poaching players.
- The Patriots deflated their own balls to test out Jimmy Garoppolo. Apparently testing out the backup would have frustrated Brady. Boy, did that backfire, as Brady got sideways with Robert Kraft because Brady felt that the franchise didn’t do enough to support him during the investigation.
More than anything, I think that this list of conspiracy theories makes a compelling case for why you should do your job as well as you can. The NFL acted in such a ridiculous and heavy-handed manner, that people trying to make sense of why they did what they did are forced to resort to theories that are not “plausible or consistent with common sense.”
Think about it: the NFL was so incompetent that theories that suggest competent, but malicious and conspiratorial behaviors start to make sense. That’s a pretty good sign that you’ve messed up.
And, perhaps the biggest thing about Deflategate is that the deflated balls probably didn’t have any impact on the game. Tom Brady still threw an interception with a “deflated” ball. The Colts didn’t lose a close game—they got crushed, even after all the footballs were reinflated at halftime. It doesn’t matter how many deflated balls the other team has if your offense can’t score more than 7 points.
- At some point we’re going to have to stop using the suffix “-gate” to indicate scandal. It’s starting to lose its strong connection to Watergate due to overuse.
- I’m forced to conclude that Ted Wells doesn’t understand sarcasm. Every message he uses as evidence to support his case means the opposite if the texters are being sarcastic. Since they’re buddies who appear to be having fun at each other’s expense, that seems like the more probable explanation. I wonder how much of Deflategate is driven by fundamental misunderstandings like these.