Why Deflategate Matters For the NFL and Fans


The reaction to Tom Welles’ report on “Deflategate” has been all over the place. Patriots fans were immediately outraged and acted like the mature grownups they are known to be. Other fan bases are delighted in the misery of Patriots fans in addition to the fact that one of the least transparent and most arrogant franchises got called out.

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Let’s not forget that New England was caught cheating before (see Spygate). Many others claim the penalty is overblown and much ado about nothing. I, however, think it is integral to the survival of the NFL that cheating, or perceived cheating, be punished severely.

First, let me preface that I do not compare deflating balls with anything that Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, Frank Clark, or anybody else has done. Offenses off the field, such as domestic violence, violent crimes, etc. are not the same as cheating within the game itself. These actual crimes exist under a separate umbrella compared to violations of NFL rules. Therefore, comparing Tom Brady’s current four game suspension to Ray Rice’s is meaningless. I do have very strong opinions about the off field issues and how they are addressed, but that’s another essay. I’m aware that the NFL doesn’t exist in a vacuum but I would subscribe to the argument that Ray Rice was not punished enough more than Brady is being punished too much.

If we are discussing comparable offenses, I would point reference Bountygate in New Orleans. The offense was that players were incentivized to injure other players on opposing teams within the existing rules of the game. This wasn’t even technically cheating. Rather, it was ethically dubious and completely lacking empathy. For Bountygate, New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and head coach Sean Payton were suspended for the entire 2012 season. Several participating players were also penalized.

I don’t think it is that farfetched to assume that most fans thought the officials, not teams, were in charge of game balls prior to this. I know that’s what I thought. New England’s intentional deflation of game balls directly violated a rule that Tom Brady lobbied to have changed back in 2006. A deflated ball provides certain advantages: easier to grip especially in wet or cold weather, easier to catch, less likely to be fumbled and turned over, etc. New England was the only team that we know of to play with these underinflated balls since each team provides their own.

It is also impossible to point to a discreet event where the underinflated ball gave New England a decided advantage. Creating a counter-factual situation is a useless exercise. What you can deduce, however, is that the probability of all possible outcomes on the field in which an underinflated ball was used was influenced, favorably in New England’s case, by the how inflated a ball was.

Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that given the number of events that involved the underinflated ball, some outcomes took place that would not have happened if the ball was properly inflated. A fumble that never happened. A pass that shouldn’t have been thrown as accurately. Whatever it is, it really doesn’t matter. The outcome was changed.

This means that all teams were not playing by the same rules. I have heard this referred to as “gamesmanship.” This is not gamesmanship. Examples of “gamesmanship” include playing through the whistle, kicking the ball so it takes a few more seconds to place, tackling the quarterback a second late, covering receivers physically and aggressively knowing pass interference may get called. These are all things that take place in plain sight on the field of play that can be penalized by officials in an effort to correct any advantage gained. Manipulating the inflation level of the balls is something that was taking place out of sight, off the field, and without the knowledge of officials and opponents.

Tom Brady has stated that he “doesn’t believe he is a cheater.” I interpret that to mean that he doesn’t think that deflating balls is cheating and therefore he is not a cheater. If intentionally deflating balls beyond the specified range in the NFL rules is cheating, then Tom Brady is, in face, a cheater. So far, every statement he has made is completely hedged and essentially meaningless.

Ok, so why does this matter? How many of us would tune in every weekend to watch our team play if we didn’t believe that everyone was playing by the same set of rules? Or that at any given time, one team could decide it didn’t like the rules as written, and without notice alter the state of play? I know I wouldn’t. Why would I commit time, money, and emotional energy to something if I know that it can be completely manipulated without my knowing? Credibility would be lost. The NFL needs credibility badly. It already has difficulty being recognized as an ethical, moral, or role model organization. If it was also believed that teams were bending rules freely and without punishment, it would lose its fans.

Also, if I was a player, risking serious injury on almost every play, assuming that everyone was playing by the same rules, I’d be straight up pissed to find out if another team was cheating. There needs to be a base level of trust. We trust that one set of uprights is not six inches more narrow than another, known only by the home team. (I doubt somebody is out measuring the uprights before every game.)

Therefore, the NFL should be highly concerned with a loss of credibility. If the game itself, can’t be trusted, everything else is meaningless. There is nothing left. I’m not going to spend my Sundays watching a rigged game. I’ve got the WWE for that.

Personally, I think New England and Brady should have been punished more severely. The loss of the draft pick is the only serious penalty. (One of the more creative penalties I heard suggested was Danny O’Neil saying that the Patriots should have to do two years of Hard Knocks. It would help force some transparency on the organization.)

It is important to remember that this is a team that has cheated before, with the same management, owner, and quarterback. If this is something that everybody is doing, then it needs to be addressed across the league or the rule needs to be removed. Mass participation, doesn’t excuse it. Fans don’t like being lied to and I doubt players do, as well.

I also don’t think that this is just a witch hunt. 31 other owners are trying to drag down Robert Kraft? Roger Goodell, who to this point has been propped up by Kraft, all of sudden bites the hand that feeds him for no reason?

New England, and Brady, cheated. It’s that simple. And the integrity of the game in and of itself, matters. The rules exist for a reason. If half a PSI doesn’t matter, then write the rules to be half a PSI broader. Or don’t provide guidelines at all. If half a PSI is meaningless, where does the line get drawn? If the collective assumption is that the rules are being followed, then it serves everyone – fans, players, owners – to enforce those rules.

If the rules are broken, especially over a prolonged period of time, then sanctions should be harsh. In my opinion, Deflategate was a worse violation than Bountygate. For whatever reason, Goodell disagreed and gave a more lenient punishment.

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