Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 14, 2015

Deflated Footballs, Inflated Reactions

It’s no surprise that geography has had a lot to do with reaction to the investigative report prepared by attorney Theodore Wells Jr. on whether the New England Patriots intentionally deflated footballs in the AFC title game, and the subsequent penalties handed down this week by the NFL against the team and star quarterback Tom Brady. Here in New England fans have rallied in support of their four-time Super Bowl champions and the team leader with the movie star looks and supermodel wife; while around the rest of the country the Patriots and Brady have been vilified as serial cheaters for whom no punishment is too severe. The passion on both sides has been impressive; the logic decidedly less so.

Having lived in New Hampshire for all my adult life, I have come to consider myself a Patriots fan. But I grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and had a family connection to Green Bay, which was in the midst of its Lombardi era when I was at an impressionable age. Thus I still have some attachment to the teams in those two cities. That in turn made me an “NFL guy” back in the misty days of old before the long-established league made peace with the upstart AFL, of which the Patriots were a charter member. So while I’ve come to support the Foxborough franchise I do so without the strong emotion of many of my neighbors. I’d like to think that allows me to observe both sides of the reaction to Deflategate with some measure of dispassion.

The emotion of my fellow New Englanders has been on wide display all around the region this week. Callers to sports radio talk shows have excoriated NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and attorney Wells. On I-95 north of Boston a large electronic billboard now displays the simple phrase, “In Tom We Trust,” a bright LED message paid for by someone with apparently disposable cash. A group of fans, incensed by the $1 million fine levied against the team, started a fundraising page at GoFundMe.com to raise money for the cause.

As a community-owned public non-profit, the Green Bay Packers are the only NFL franchise required to publicly release financial information. Over the past few years their annual net operating income has averaged $40 million. It’s safe to assume that the Patriots are no less of a money machine, with a net worth recently estimated at more than $2.5 billion. The idea of a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to help pay the fine seems either insane or idiotic, or perhaps both. But in a post on the website the organizers state that they are doing it to protest what they see as the NFL singling out an enormously successful franchise with an especially egregious fine.

The symbolism apparently has its appeal. In three days more than 1,100 fans have contributed, with the most common donation naturally being $12, an amount that mirrors the number on Tom Brady’s jersey. Perhaps another campaign can be started to help raise bail money for the fans who traveled from Massachusetts down to New York City to stage a protest at NFL headquarters on Park Avenue, where they were eventually arrested after refusing to leave.

But if outrage at the fine, the loss of two draft picks including a first round selection next year, and the four-game suspension of Brady at the start of next season has all caused some in New England to take leave of their senses, they are matched by fans around the country frothing at the mouth and demanding that far more severe punishments be imposed. There have been calls for Brady to be suspended for a year, and even a few demanding that he be banned from the game. The occasional pundit has argued that the Patriots should be made to forfeit their most recent Super Bowl title. We’ve all been reminded repeatedly of the 2007 incident in which the team and head coach Bill Belichick were penalized severely for videotaping the defensive signals of the New York Jets during a game. That’s more than enough proof for a few out on the fringe to assert that New England always cheats and thus should have to vacate all four of the team’s recent championships.

The common refrain in many of these appeals is “cheating is cheating.” The obvious problem with that truism is its lack of context. It is equally true that sinning is sinning, but some bad acts are considered venial while others lead to eternal damnation. Even on the field of play, a yellow flag thrown for offsides results in a different penalty than one thrown for pass interference.

The fact that many fans living more than a few hours’ drive from Gillette Stadium have chosen to ignore context probably has as much to do with the recent record of the team they are criticizing as with the true impact of underinflated footballs on the outcome of a game. In the midst of the protracted investigation into the air pressure in the balls used in the AFC Championship, the NFL determined that the Atlanta Falcons had pumped artificial crowd noise into the covered Georgia Dome during games for the past two seasons, to make it more difficult for opposing offenses to hear their quarterbacks’ signals. The Falcons were fined $350,000 and stripped of a late round draft pick next year.

One could reasonably argue that Atlanta’s wrongdoing was at least as impactful on the outcome of games as New England’s, if not more so. But there was no national outcry, no screaming headlines about “Noisegate.” But then Atlanta finished 6-10 last year, and 4-12 the previous season. The Falcons lone trip to the Super Bowl was almost two decades ago.

In contrast as all NFL fans know, and some doubtless resent, the Patriots have been to six Super Bowls with Brady calling signals and Belichick on the sidelines. Perhaps cheating is cheating, unless it doesn’t seem to help. Of course to that end there is the simple truth that in the game against the Colts, the Patriots slogged their way to a 17-7 halftime lead with underinflated footballs. After the defective pigskins were discovered and replaced at halftime, New England scored 28 unanswered points in the final two quarters.

Despite the absurdity of the extreme reactions from both sides, believers in the axiom that any publicity is good publicity will count this as a good week for the NFL. The NHL and NBA playoffs are moving toward their twin climaxes, even as the Great Game prepares to take center stage. But everywhere fans are talking about football. Except that they aren’t, really.

As Tom Brady appeals his suspension and the Patriots put up a website with a 20,000 word rebuttal to the Wells report, it’s clear that we are nowhere close to the end of Deflategate, which is ultimately just one more distraction for a league that has pinballed its way through an endless series of them for more than a year. Try as he might, Roger Goodell can’t get the world to refocus on the action on the field, and as this particular issue moves on to its arbitration and potential courtroom phase, there’s no indication that’s about to change.

Next year the NFL will celebrate Super Bowl 50, an event so grand that the league’s marketing department has already decided to dispense with the traditional Roman numeral logo. It will be an orgy of pomp, product placement, and self-congratulation. Somewhere in the midst of it all, two teams will play a game. Once it’s over and Goodell hands the Lombardi Trophy to the winning owner, if he’s smart he might think about retiring. It might well be his last chance to quit while he can still pretend to be ahead.

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Responses

  1. Bread and circuses. We are Ancient Rome, and the Super Bowl, wherever it’s played, is our Coliseum. I enjoyed reading your take on this issue, and feel exactly the same way. The most ridiculous thing to me, though, is how much time even so-called “serious news” shows (Lawrence O’Donnell, for example), have spent talking about this on T.V. My God, how our culture has degenerated into mindless, meaningless nonsense.


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