Columns » Gene Lyons

NFL blows it

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The bombast and grandiosity of NFL football have always put me off. Fans too often treat ballgames as if they were wars between rival tribes or nation states; symbolic struggles between good and evil. As somebody who watches probably 150 major league baseball games a year, I find the hype alternately exhausting and ridiculous.

So no, I don't have even a fan's stake in "Deflategate," the highly publicized battle between the NFL front office and the New England Patriots over the allegation that the Patriots cheated their way to the Super Bowl by letting air out of game balls to make them easier to grip. Or something. It's clear that pounds per square inch had little to do with the 45-7 beat down the Patriots put on the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC championship.

In baseball, only umpires handle game balls. Doctoring them with pine tar, sandpaper or saliva is against the rules, but guys have pitched their way into the Hall of Fame doing it and fans mostly admire their gamesmanship. It's clear that NFL rules pretty much encourage customizing footballs; also that slight differences in pressure mean nothing to anybody except the guy throwing them.

Which brings us to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and what really interests me about "Deflategate": the way it exemplifies the great Dionysian Cult of Celebrity Worship that governs so much of American public life. Figuratively speaking, we turn people into demigods only to envy and destroy them.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Neal Gabler thinks, "it speaks to a sea-change in our perception of human nature. Whether it is Brady, or Hillary Clinton and her e-mails, or Bill and his Foundation, or Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, we reflexively now always assume the worst about people. No one gets the benefit of the doubt."

I wouldn't go that far, but Gabler's examples are well chosen. It's certainly true that once somebody like Brady (or Hillary Clinton) has been targeted, it's almost impossible for them to get even-handed treatment in the scandal-mongering media.

"Deflategate," has been driven by inaccurate, insider-driven reporting from the get go. As usual, Bob Somerby's Daily Howler website has been all over it. "As with most of our consensus scandals," he writes "the scandal our press corps has dubbed "Deflategate" began with some false information. ... At ESPN and at NBC Sports, major journalists attributed this false information to unnamed 'NFL sources.' Apparently, the bad information was being dispensed by people within the league."

ESPN's "investigative reporter" Chris Mortensen got the party started just before the Super Bowl:

"The NFL has found that 11 of the New England Patriots' 12 game balls were inflated significantly below the NFL's requirements, league sources involved and familiar with the investigation of Sunday's AFC Championship Game told ESPN ... The investigation found the footballs were inflated 2 pounds per square inch below what's required by NFL regulations."

A veritable chorus of televised outrage began that has basically never let up. NBC Sports correctly reported what we now learn via the league's own Wells Report, that the real numbers were closer to one pound under the 12.5 psi standard — pretty much what the physics of gases would predict of a ball inflated in a 70 degree locker room and exposed to mid-40s temperatures for a couple of hours.

However, hardly anybody outside Boston noticed. According to the Patriots organization, the NFL forbade them from releasing these facts. The league also sent the team a misleading letter claiming that a ball intercepted by a Colts linebacker measured 10.1 pounds.

Wrong again.

The offending football was measured three times. Again via the Wells Report, the resulting numbers were 11.45 psi; 11.35 psi; 11.75 psi.

So why are we still talking about this foolishness? Incredibly, because NFL investigator Ted Wells decided the referee must have been wrong about which of two gauges he'd used to measure the footballs. Seemingly because if the referee was right, there was zero evidence of tampering, and nothing to investigate. All the rest is a poorly written novel.

Why would the NFL want to tear down one of its marquee stars? Beats me. Napoleon probably said it best: "Never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by incompetence."

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