Can “Deflategate” be solved—and does the NFL care if it is?

The New England Patriots punched their ticket to Superbowl XLIX with a win over the Indianapolis Colts, but eleven of the twelve footballs used by the Patriots in that game were underinflated.

NFL Logo at Pro Football Hall of Fame, Photo by Matt McGee (Flickr)

The New England Patriots won their fourth Superbowl this year, an accomplishment that ties the franchise for fourth in Superbowl wins, trailing only the Dallas Cowboys (five), San Francisco 49ers (five), and Pittsburgh Steelers (six). The Patriots won Superbowl XLIX, a close contest, on an interception that occurred with less than a minute remaining in the game. Those who watched know the game could have been won by either team, but now that all the shine has worn off and the lights have turned down, one lasting impression remains: “Deflategate.”

Two weeks before winning Superbowl XLIX, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the New England Patriots played the Indianapolis Colts in the American Football Conference (“AFC”) Championship game. During the game, D’Qwell Jackson, a linebacker for the Colts, intercepted a pass from Tom Brady and gave the ball to the Colts’ equipment manager. The equipment manager realized the ball was deflated and informed the proper officials, which prompted an investigation into whether the Patriots were using and playing with deflated footballs, a clear violation of rule 2 section 1 of the National Football League’s rulebook.

A dynasty built on winning, breaking the rules, and gaining a competitive advantage.

While some scoff at this violation and claim it created only a slight advantage, others see the deflated footballs as a symbol of the Patriots’ dynastya dynasty built on winning, breaking the rules, and gaining a competitive advantage. The amount of air in a football may seem like an insignificant factor, but the truth, according to Dr. Ainissa Ramirez, former Yale University engineering professor and co-author of Newton’s Football, is that “deflating the ball does give a team an advantage.”  “Particularly during [the AFC Championship game] which was very rainy, it’s hard to hold the ball, it’s hard to catch the ball.”

The bottom line is that deflating footballs gives a team an advantage, but why is this particular violation getting so much attention?  Belichick has been the head coach of the New England Patriots for the past fifteen years, and Brady has been the starting quarterback for the past fourteen years.  During that time, the New England Patriots won the AFC East division twelve times, won the AFC Champtionship six times, won the Superbowl four times, and never suffered through a losing season. Unfortunately, all of this glory is built on a questionable foundation.

In 2007, the Patriots faced a similar controversy called “Spygate.” The Patriots were caught videotaping the New York Jets’ defensive coordinators’ signals during the game, an act that helped the Patriots predict the defensive play call, a huge advantage for the offense. After an investigation into the matter, the NFL determined this action to be a violation of the league rules. Belichick was fined the maximum amount of $500,000, and the Patriots lost their first round draft pick. Additional allegations of cheating have been made against the Patriots, including previous complaints about underinflated balls, but none were substantiated until Deflategate.

The NFL is governed by its constitution and bylaws, which require NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to give notice and provide a hearing for the accused.

Deflategate began when the Patriots broke Rule 2 section 1 titled “Ball Dimensions,” which states “the ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind.”  The league created this rule in order to create a level playing field between opponents because a ball with less air pressure is easier to throw and catch.

Upon investigating the matter, the league found eleven of the twelve footballs used by the Patriots to be under inflated by two pounds or less per square inch.  This finding created a series of initial questions. Who deflated the footballs? How were the footballs deflated? When did the deflation occur?  These questions need answers in order for the NFL to properly implement a fair punishment against the Patriots.

The NFL is a private organization responsible for governing itself and enforcing its own rules.  The NFL is governed by its constitution and bylaws, which require NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell to give notice and provide a hearing for the accused player or organization before issuing punishment.  As a result, Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots will be given ample time to respond to the allegations of deflating the footballs.

Michael McCann, a writer for Sports Illustrated suggests likely responses for the Patriots might include the team contesting “the evidence that the balls were under-inflated. The fact that the referees seemed unaware of the under-inflation suggests that the problem was either non-existent or of no consequence. The Patriots might also assert that any under-inflation of the footballs was accidental and perhaps caused by faulty equipment or weather conditions.”

“Acknowledge fault but try to pin the blame on a low-level staff member, such as an overly enthusiastic ball boy.”

However, the most likely path will be for the Patriots to “acknowledge fault but try to pin the blame on a low-level staff member, such as an overly enthusiastic ball boy, a move that wouldn’t insulate the team from NFL punishment but would distance the team’s players and its coaching staff from accusations of wrongdoing.”  This tried and true method was employed in 2012 by the University of Southern California when its football team handled similar allegations by firing the student manager responsible for deflating the footballs.

Another concern is the NFL’s ability to investigate.  Since this is an internal investigation by a private corporate entity into an issue not yet in the legal system, the NFL is unable to subpoena Brady or Belichick and those interviewed during an investigation are not subject to perjury penalties. The NFL must rely on the Patriots to be accommodating during the investigation, a position that creates ample opportunity to find or create a scapegoat.  As luck would have it, the NFL is currently looking into whether “a game-day worker employed by the Patriots, a man described as elderly” tampered with the footballs.  Although there is no “overly-enthusiastic ball boy,” there is video showing an elderly man taking “two bags of twelve footballs (one bag from each team) into the restroom near the referees’ room in Gillette Stadium. The man was in the room for ninety-eight seconds. When he exited the room, he took the balls to the field.”

Ultimately, the Patriots dynasty will be unaffected by Deflategate, which will soon be an afterthought.

If the “elderly man” did in fact deflate the footballs, who gave him the orders?  Logic would dictate that Brady instructed the man to deflate the footballs, because no individual in the Patriots’ organization is more concerned than Brady about the inflation levels of the footballs. The only person who might hold more influence than Brady is Belichick, which means these are the two men most likely to be responsible for the deflated footballs. In addition to having the power and incentive to deflate the footballs, Brady has previously stated that he likes deflated footballs, saying in a 2011 interview with WEEI, “when [Rob Gronkowski scores . . . he spikes the ball and he deflates the ball. I love that because I like the deflated ball.”

Cheating is already part of the game, and it appears as though it is here to stay because the NFL is unable to properly conduct an investigation into this matter or similar matters under the organization’s current rules. Thus, the Patriots will be able to blame the deflated footballs on an elderly man who may have acted independently from the organization.  As a result, the Patriots will likely receive an appropriate punishment for “conduct detrimental to the league,” such as losing a draft pick or paying a penalty.  As soon as the public forgets or gets bored with Deflategate, the NFL will eagerly brush this scandal under the proverbial rug alongside other mishandled NFL scandals including Spygate, the Ray Rice domestic violence case, the Ben Roethlisberger sexual assault accusations, and the New Orleans Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal, just to name a few.

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About Cabell Sinclair, Former Senior Staff Writer (13 Articles)
Cabell Sinclair served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. In 2012, Cabell graduated from Campbell University with a degree in Business Administration. Cabell also served as Negotiation Chair for the Old Kivett Advocacy Council and has represented the university in the Regional ABA Negotiation Competition. Following his first year of law school, Cabell worked as a summer associate at Safran Law offices. He is from Raleigh, North Carolina and attended St. David’s School. Cabell graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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