On May 11, 2015, the NFL penalized the New England Patriots for allegedly deflating footballs during this year’s AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts. Footballs that are deflated below league requirements cannot legally be used in a game, as they are considered easier to grip and throw, especially in inclement weather. Prior to the start of the second half, the Colts alerted the referees that they thought the Patriots’ footballs seemed underinflated (each team provides its own footballs on offense). The officials, after inspection, removed the Patriots’ balls from play, and after the game, the NFL opened an investigation, which is now referred to as “Deflategate.”
After months of investigation, Ted Wells released his final report in which he indicated that it was “more probable than not” that Tom Brady and the Patriots organization were complicit in the deflation of the footballs to gain a competitive advantage. The penalties that the Patriots received are some of the harshest ones ever dealt by the NFL to a team. First, their star quarterback Tom Brady was suspended for the first four games of this upcoming season (which is being appealed by the NFL Players Association on Brady’s behalf). The organization itself was also fined one million dollars, which equals the highest fine issued in league history. Lastly, the “Pats” were stripped of a first-round draft pick in 2016 and a fourth round pick in 2017.
While these punishments may seem extremely harsh, there are many reasons why the NFL may have decided that it was necessary to put its foot down. The Patriots have historically been known to push the envelope in order to gain a competitive advantage. In 2007, the Patriots violated league rules by filming the defensive coaches of the New York Jets from an angle that was not allowed. Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft is also a very good friend of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, so Goodell may have punished the Pats quite firmly to seem unbiased.
Brady’s first half performance in the AFC Championship Game was not great, which suggests he likely gained no true advantage that day from the deflated footballs. The NFL probably thought that the Patriots were using deflated footballs other times during the season. For example, in the Patriots’ previous playoff game against the Ravens, Tom Brady had a superb performance in frigid conditions, especially in the second half when the team ran passing plays on virtually every down. The Patriots were also near the bottom of the fumbles category last season, possibly indicating that their running backs had a better grip on the ball.
Brady may have received such a strong punishment due to the fact that he did not fully cooperate with the NFL’s investigation. When the NFL requested access to Brady’s cell phone, Brady denied the request. It is assumed that two lower-paid equipment managers (one who called himself “The Deflator” in a text message) were involved in an ongoing effort to deflate footballs. Logic suggests that these individuals would not fiddle with their star quarterback’s footballs unless they believed that he wanted them in this specific condition. In a press conference before the Super Bowl, Brady actually admitted that he prefers footballs with less air, but he also denied any involvement with deflation of the footballs. Some believe Brady was less than truthful during this press conference to avoid any possibility of a suspension prior to the Super Bowl.
While this incident is considered a major scandal in the sports world, it seems a bit ridiculous when looking at it from the perspective of an outsider. After all, the entire sports world is talking about a team taking a little air out of footballs during a sporting event. The Patriots were probably just “pushing the envelope,” like many other professional athletes have done previously. For example, Jerry Rice, who is widely considered to be the best NFL receiver of all time, admitted years after his retirement that he put Stickum on his gloves before games to make it easier to catch the football. Many defensive linemen have put cooking spray on their jerseys so they are harder to corral when they are rushing the quarterback.
It is important to consider the difference between “pushing the envelope” and real “criminal acts” when we analyze sports, especially those with the same level of importance in American culture as the NFL. The Patriots, Jerry Rice and many others, while technically breaking the rules, were just trying to get a small competitive advantage in a game. These actions are not “right,” but in the broader scheme of life, they are minor infractions. However, the NFL has also recently had to address serious incidents of domestic violence from offenders like Ray Rice and Greg Hardy. The NFL has done a terrible job with these much more serious problems. For example, at first, Ray Rice was only suspended for two games for punching his girlfriend in the head. The NFL claimed to have never seen the video of this beating, even though TMZ was able to secure and publish the footage. Appearing out of touch, the NFL reversed course and eventually suspended Rice indefinitely. It’s hard to believe that our society can get so focused on air in a football and lose sight of the real travesty of justice that is being committed within the nation’s favorite pastime. The NFL is corrupt, and it’s time to do something about it.