The 10 things that still bother me about #DeflateGate
Nearly 20 months after the football-following world became aware of the phenomenon known as #DeflateGate, the most tangible effect arrives tonight, when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady misses a game because of it. He’ll eventually miss three more, which you probably already know but, hey, I need to be complete.
Speaking of complete, here’s a list of not one or four but 10 things about the #DeflateGate situation that still make me feel incomplete.
Patriots fans likely experience a different feeling than that. One that makes them feel something like the notorious courtroom sketch of Brady looks.
1. The NFL disregarded the concerns expressed by the Colts.
This all got started when the Colts informed the league office of concerns about the inflation (or lack thereof) in Patriots footballs. This prompted some to believe that New England ended up being the subject of a sting operation, with the Colts and the NFL laying a trap for the home team in the AFC championship game.
But that’s not what happened. The league office regarded the complaints as an example of the gamesmanship that commonly occurs in football, with teams pissing and/or moaning about other teams’ tactics so frequently that it becomes background noise for the NFL.
This one, however, shouldn’t have simply been ignored -- if, as the NFL would later claim, messing with air pressure represents a serious affront to the integrity of the game. It should have been taken seriously, with plans made either for putting the Patriots on notice that the league will be paying attention (which is what some think Commissioner Paul Tagliabue would have done) or for truly catching the Patriots in the act, with the right plan for creating clear, unmistakable evidence that someone had taken air out of the footballs.
Instead, a Keystone Cops clusterfudge emerged after linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a Brady pass and the Colts renewed a complaint that, while initially disregarded, suddenly was treated like a capital crime.
2. The NFL didn’t understand the operation of the Ideal Gas Law.
Instantly suspicious of the Patriots, a small army of league officials convened in the officials’ locker room to measure the air pressure of the footballs used by New England’s offense. The suspicions heightened as the numbers emerging from the pressure gauges fell under the mandatory minimum of 12.5 PSI.
Those suspicions quickly became a presumption of cheating, which some (including me) believe culminated in an effort to work backward to prove it.
The presumption of cheating trumped common sense and science. Anyone who owns a car and lives in a cold climate knows that the air pressure in the tires drops during the winter months. Some, depending on education and the retention thereof, know about the Ideal Gas Law.
The equation is PV = nrT, where the P means pressure and the T connotes temperature. When the other three variables (volume, molecules of gas, and the universal gas constant) are unchanged, a reduction in temperature necessarily means a reduction in volume.
As PFT surmised a week after the Ted Wells report was released, NFL executive V.P. of football operations Troy Vincent admitted during the internal appeal hearing in Brady’s case that Vincent didn’t know air pressure drops as the temperature does. With Vincent being the top non-Commissioner football executive in the league and, when the balls were being checked, in the room, that’s a problem for the league -- the kind of problem that should have resulted in a quick decision to declare the evidence to be inconclusive, to warn all teams going forward that attention will be paid to this issue, and to move on.
Indeed, if there had been cheating, the combined effects of intentional removal of air plus the operation of the Ideal Gas Law would have resulted in PSI measurements much lower than the numbers that actually were detected. Once the data was released as numbers buried in the lengthy Ted Wells report, the league never acknowledged the common-sense reality that, if Jim McNally had removed air from the balls while in the bathroom on the way to the playing field for 90 seconds, tampering plus temperature drop would have created numbers much lower than those that were measured.
3. The NFL’s two pressure gauges were badly out of sync.
The NFL’s lack of scientific knowledge was matched by the NFL’s lack of scientific method. Apart from the absence of the kind of laboratory standards that would reliably and accurately measure air pressure in relation to outdoor temperature, duration of exposure, and amount of time in a warmer environment prior to testing, the tools used for the determination of PSI displayed dramatically different readings.
As to most of the measures, the two gauges had a variance of 0.3 to 0.45 PSI. Those discrepancies, coupled with an assumption regarding the pregame use of the gauges that required the league’s second-hand-smoke-doesn’t-cause-cancer scientific experts to disregard the best recollection of referee Walt Anderson, should have resulted in a scientifically responsible finding that the evidence that cheating occurred in connection with the AFC title game is inconclusive, at best.
4. The NFL leaked false information to the media.
The most egregious and problematic aspect of #DeflateGate continues to be the reality that someone at the league office leaked false information to Chris Mortensen of ESPN and, separately, Peter King of TheMMQB.com regarding the air-pressure measurements taken at halftime of the AFC championship game. The news that 11 of 12 Patriots footballs were at least two pounds below the 12.5 PSI minimum turned a curiosity into a collective conclusion that someone cheated -- with the only remaining questions being who did it, and who knew about it.
Even if the league didn’t deliberately spread false data in an effort to justify the multi-million-dollar fishing expedition that eventually proved cheating (even if it didn’t), the NFL failed to correct the misinformation, validating the falsehood and setting the stage for the latest, and likely final, appearance of Ted Wells in an NFL investigation.
It wasn’t as if an effort didn’t occur to get the real numbers. When NFL Media reported PSI measurements that conflicted with ESPN’s during the Super Bowl XLIX pregame show, I called multiple sources who presumably were in position to set the record straight, explaining that NBC currently was on the air with a five-hour pregame show and that this was the best opportunity to get the truth out to the public. Every source who presumably was in position to share the real measurements claimed to not have immediate access to the numbers. None of them ever hinted that Mortensen’s numbers were anything other than 100 percent correct.
5. Ted Wells failed to secure an admission from Jastremski or McNally.
If, as Ted Wells concluded, John Jastremski and Jim McNally were engaged in a scheme to deflate footballs, Ted Wells should have found a way to get one of them to crack. Wells failed to do so, robbing the case of the smoking gun it so badly needed.
The most egregious error came when the Wells team interviewed McNally without having noticed the text message in which he calls himself “the Deflator,” even though the Wells team had the text message in its possession. That’s the kind of oversight that gets experienced lawyers sued for malpractice and young lawyers fired from their jobs.
If Wells had known about “the Deflator” text message, it would have been much easier to grill McNally to the point at which he broke -- especially if, for example, Wells had finagled a way to take McNally’s statement under oath, allowing the possibility of a perjury prosecution to pressure him into giving Wells the admission the case so badly needed.
There was still one more chance to put Jastremski and McNally under oath. Inexplicably, however, Commissioner Roger Goodell decided not to require testimony from either of them at the internal appeal hearing regarding Brady’s suspension.
6. Don Yee gave Tom Brady bad advice. (Or Brady ignored good advice.)
Throughout his playing career, Tom Brady has accepted below-market offers from the Patriots, presumably against the advice of agent/lawyer Don Yee. In #DeflateGate, Brady either ignored Yee’s advice again, or Yee simply provided bad advice.
First, Ted Wells offered at one point to simply accept a collection of potentially relevant text messages and emails sent by Brady on his phone in lieu of examining the actual device. Instead of accepting the offer and giving Wells a limited slice of the information Brady had sent and received (which, obviously, would have allowed Brady and Yee to conceal any incriminating messages, if they so desired), Brady persisted in his refusal to give Wells anything -- and that decision greased the skids for the four-game suspension.
Second, Brady stubbornly refused to admit the obvious fact when testifying during his appeal hearing that he prefers footballs to be inflated at the low end of the permissible range. By coming off as evasive on this important foundational subject, Brady created the impression that he was trying to conceal guilt by obscuring his motivation to arrange for footballs to be inflated below the minimum limits. It was a blow to his credibility that did nearly as much harm as the missing cell phone.
7. Roger Goodell delegated the decision to Troy Vincent.
In an effort to massage the optics that would have emerged from Commissioner Roger Goodell making the decision to suspend Brady and then presiding over the appeal of it, Goodell delegated the initial decision to Troy Vincent. But does anyone really think Vincent did anything other than what Goodell wanted him to do?
The effort to wash Goodell’s hands of the initial decision so that he could credibly handle the appeal comes off as contrived. Surely, Vincent knew that Goodell approved of the four-game suspension on which he ultimately would rule.
By making Brady’s missing cell phone the centerpiece of the ruling on appeal (even though Goodell should have sent the matter back to Vincent for possibly enhanced discipline based on new evidence of wrongdoing), Goodell was able to gloss over the potential P.R. problems that would have come from Goodell upholding the suspension based on the same facts that supported his top lieutenant’s decision. Regardless, Goodell should have put his name on the initial ruling.
So why didn’t he? If he had, Goodell may have found himself pressured to delegate the appeal process beyond the league office. Four years ago, Goodell learned the hard way the perils of entrusting the decision to someone not currently employed at 345 Park Avenue, when he asked former Commissioner Paul Tagliabue to resolve the appeals of the player suspensions in the Saints bounty scandal.
Tagliabue overturned Goodell’s decision.
8. Roger Goodell distorted a key portion of Brady’s testimony.
Goodell’s rejection of Brady’s denial of cheating hinged in part on a conclusion that Brady claimed that an increase in communications with John Jastremski after the January 2015 AFC title game occurred only because of the upcoming task of preparing footballs for the Super Bowl, and that Brady did not talk to Jastremski about the allegations of tampering with football air pressure. But that’s not what Brady said.
Brady testified that he spoke to Jastremski for both reasons, rendering not credible one of the primary bases for the attack on Brady’s credibility.
It’s a subtle yet important sign of the lengths to which the league office went to, when necessary, overlook the truth in order to support a conclusion reached at halftime of the Colts-Patriots game, when the PSI readings were coming in under 12.5 PSI, when know one bothered to notice the low-tech scientific explanation for that phenomenon, and when everyone connected to the league office decided that the Patriots had been caught with their hand pressed to the bottom of the cookie jar.
9. Roger Goodell failed to treat this as an equipment violation.
The NFL and the NFL Players Association have negotiated a fine schedule that applies when players engage in an equipment violation. The list of equipment violations includes the use of Stickum, a foreign substance that makes it easier to grip a football.
If guilty as charged, Brady was involved in a scheme aimed at making it easier to grip a football. So why wasn’t this treated as an equipment violation? Neither the league nor Goodell ever have supplied a plausible explanation to that straightforward and simple question.
Disagreeing with the decision of two colleagues who, like him, had been randomly assigned to hear the federal appeal of the Brady case, the Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit hammered away at the point that Brady, if guilty, should have been slapped at worst with a fine in the amount of $8,268.
10. The NFL still refuses to disclose the results of PSI spot checks.
Given that the NFL had never previously considered the behavior of air pressure inside footballs during actual game conditions, the league had an opportunity in 2015 to devote the entire season to studying exactly what happens when footballs are exposed to a wide range of circumstances. With a total of 333 preseason, regular season, and postseason games, the league could have compiled enough data to either reinforce, or debunk, the convoluted, assumption-driven assessment from the Ted Wells report that the Patriots must have cheated in the AFC title game.
Instead, the league opted to engage in a series of spot checks. Despite the plain terms of the policy applicable to the measurement of PSI levels at specific games, NFL Security intervened in the process, harvesting the numbers and whisking them away from view. The NFL also declined to ever make any of the measurements available for public scrutiny.
Why the lack of transparency? Because, surely, multiple games were played last year with footballs that deviated from the 12.5 PSI minimum, especially on very cold days. By releasing that information along with a finding that no violations had occurred, the decision to punish the Patriots and Brady based on PSI numbers falling within the range that the Ideal Gas Law would have predicted would have become even more glaring.
Based on the 10 factors outlined above, the league’s failure to prove cheating in connection with the 2015 AFC title game remains very glaring. While the evidence suggests that something fishy was generally happening, Ted Wells failed to prove that it happened on the day in question, which is ultimately what the Patriots and Brady were punished for.
Even if it did happen that day, the NFL has failed to adequately explain how an apparent technicality influenced by atmospheric forces the league previously didn’t comprehend triggers the level of scrutiny and punishment the Patriots and Brady endured, especially when catching Brady blatantly using Stickum to better grip the ball would have resulted in a fine of less than $10,000 for a first offense.
Patriots fans continue to care deeply about this outcome, as they should. Fans of every other team should care about it because, in time, their favorite team could find itself on the wrong end of a sloppy, clumsy, incomplete, results-driven investigation, too.