DeflateGate: Cheating or Something Else?

05/11/2015 10:16 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2016

The NFL came down hard on Tom Brady and the Patriots - suspending him for four games, fining the team $1 million, and taking away first and fourth round draft picks in 2016 and 2017. This punishment is a result of the Wells Report that states "it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski involving the release of air from Patriots game balls."

Could the Patriots and Brady be taking the fall for NFL's PR problems?

Over the past year the NFL has been rocked by a series of brand-damaging events that have been magnified by media coverage including:

  1. Former employees seeking compensation for ongoing health problems caused by concussions and painkillers given to them for injuries so they could continue playing;
  2. A video showing Ray Rice punching and dragging his fiancée from an elevator;
  3. League MVP, Adrian Peterson, disciplining his 4-year-old son with a switch that caused his son visible injuries and the NFL to suspend him for the rest of the season.

After dragging its feet on the other cases, is it possible the NFL is using Brady and the Patriots to convince the public it is serious about eliminating any problems that could further damage its image?

Competitive professional athletes test boundaries all the time

Brady is being accused of getting assistants to lower ball pressure below the 12.5 to 13.5 psi inflation pressure allowed by the NFL. It is no secret that he likes the footballs at the low end of the allowable range. Some quarterbacks prefer their footballs to be at the high end. In fact, Aaron Rodgers admitted to CBS announcers that he liked to overinflate footballs beyond the 13.5-PSI regulation upper limit. Yet, there is no InflateGate.

Disturbing findings in the Wells Report

No doubt some of the information in the Wells report appears to be damning, but when you put the information in context, it is not clear, beyond any reasonable doubt, that cheating took place. Perhaps this is the reason for the "fuzzy" wording ("...more probable than not...") in the report.

Measurements not taken before the AFC championship game

Apparently, referee Walt Anderson did not take measurements of the footballs before the game between the Patriots and the Colts. If such measurements were not taken, can anyone be sure that deliberate deflation took place? If not, is it appropriate for the NFL to take such harsh measures against Brady and the Patriots?

Mystery of the two different pressure gauges

The NFL had two different gauges to measure the pressure of the footballs at halftime of the AFC Championship game in question. According to the recollection of referee Walt Anderson on page 52 of the report (as reported by NBC Sports), he used the gauge that leads to the finding that there was no tampering of the footballs by the Patriots. Yet, this key piece of evidence seems to be left out of the report's conclusions.

The damning texts were from months before the game in question

The circumstantial texts between McNally and Jastremski were from May and October - months before the AFC Championship game. They related to a Week 7 game between the Jets and Patriots. More interesting, when Jastremski checked the pressure after the refs inspected them, his texts claim that the inflation pressure of some of the balls were as high as 16 psi. His talk of deflating them seems to refer to bringing them back to the PSI range of 12.5 to 13.5 PSI.

The scientific explanation

The ideal gas law is PV=nRT (where P=pressure, V=volume, n=amount of gas in number of moles, R=the gas constant, and T=Temperature). As the temperature goes down (it was cold and damp at game time), the pressure will go down as well. Several physicists have testified that this could explain a lower pressure when they were measured at halftime. So there are three factors that could explain a lower pressure. Two of three are scientific.

  1. Tampering.
  2. Ideal gas law.
  3. Footballs lose air over the course of a game.

Affects on the game

So whatever the cause of the lower pressure, the key question is will lowering the pressure give a competitive advantage to one team over the other?

  • Easier to grip and catch. Footballs with less air pressure are easier to grip and catch. One could argue that this gives an advantage to the quarterback and person catching the ball. However, the same advantage goes to the defensive backs that try to intercept the football.
  • Do not travel as far. Footballs with less air pressure have less mass and do not travel as far. This would appear to be a disadvantage to the quarterback and an advantage to the defense.

Quarterback preference versus effort to cheat

In every sport, the professionals that get paid a lot of money to handle game balls like them a certain way. Pitchers in baseball like to rub down the balls to the point where they are comfortable. Similarly, quarterbacks in football like to have control over the pressure. Brady likes it at the low end, and Aaron Rodgers likes it at the high end. It is up to the leagues to determine what is legal or not.

Easy fix

In the case of DeflateGate, if the NFL wants to put the problem to rest once and for all, there is a simple solution. They can have one set of footballs controlled by the referees throughout the game.

Did the ball pressure affect the outcome of the game?

Whatever the cause of the lower pressure when the balls were measured, does anyone really believe that it affected the outcome of the AFC Championship Game? Given the track record of Tom Brady and the Patriots, it is a weak argument that the outcome of the Colts and Patriots game would have been materially different.

Image of the Patriots

DeflateGate is not the first time the image of the Patriots has been called into question. In 2007, the NFL (1) fined Patriots coach Bill Belichik $500,000, (2) ordered the Patriots to pay a $250,000 fine, and (3) required the team to give up draft picks for stealing the New York Jets defensive signals recorded on video tape. That incident was called Spygate. In response to both "gates," some coaches and players have said that all teams try to steal signals and doctor footballs. Others say that is no excuse. The integrity of the sport is in question, and the NFL needs to step up to insure the games are fair and set the right example for young people that idolize sports heroes. When the issue of DeflateGate was first raised in January, coach Belichik and quarterback Tom Brady addressed the media and claimed that they do not know how the balls were deflated. Whether or not they are telling the truth, a lot of people don't believe their stories. An NBC poll reported on the Today Show indicated that 70% of the viewing public does not believe Belichik whereas 77% does not believe Brady.

Fixing the brand damage

To restore its image, the Patriots need to be forthcoming with proof to support its case. Without it, doubts will linger, and their image will suffer - especially outside of their fan base. If Brady and the Patriots accept the punishment doled out by the NFL, a majority of the public is likely to believe they are guilty. If wrongly accused, they need to prove their case with undeniable 3rd party proof. It is too bad that the Wells report seems to avoid the recollection of the referee, the two different pressure gauges, and the dates of the damning text messages. Stay tuned, it appears that this story does not end with the punitive measures the NFL just announced.