Last weekend, this year’s Super Bowl matchup was decided when the Seattle Seahawks defeated the Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots blew out the Indianapolis Colts. But instead of talking the Super Bowl, sports fans are obsessing over a hilarious controversy involving the Patriots deflating footballs.
Yes. Deflated footballs: This is indeed a real thing that people care about. Allow us to guide you, non sports fan, in understanding why anyone would care.
Essentially, the Patriots are accused of deflating their footballs beyond the acceptable limit. Following a complaint from the Colts after the Sunday game, the National Football League reportedly found that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots in that game were significantly under-inflated.
Why would you deflate your footballs?
Footballs with less air in them are easier to grip, especially in cold or inclement weather. When air is pumped into a ball it becomes increasingly stiff, so letting air out of one makes it softer and squishier.
According to ESPN, the Patriots are accused of putting balls in play that were two pounds per square inch lighter than NFL regulations. Denver Broncos defensive tackle Terrance Knighton posted this on Twitter about how the balls would be affected:
(He appears to have deleted his Twitter account since then.)
But as Barry Petchesky argues on Deadspin, it’s not clear that the Patriots were going beyond the bounds of what’s generally acceptable in the sport:
The more context that emerges, the more it feels like messing with footballs is akin to pitchers doctoring baseballs: everybody does it, and nobody looks too closely until an opponent publicly complains. Aaron Rodgers says he likes his balls overinflated. Brad Johnson says that before the Super Bowl, he paid “some guys” $7,500 to illegally rough up 100 game balls. Quarterbacks are understandably particular about the feel of their footballs, and teams seem to have an unspoken agreement to respect each other’s freedom to squeeze and scuff and shine their own balls to their preference, as long as it stays within the bounds of decency. Either the Patriots went beyond those bounds, or the Colts were extra-salty and felt they had nothing to lose.
So why do people care so much here?
If this scandal involved any other team besides the Patriots, it wouldn’t be nearly as big. But the Patriots are an incredibly successful team (12 division championships in the last 14 seasons) from a loathsome city (Boston), plus they have a background in bending the rules: In 2007, the Patriots were forced to give up their first round draft pick and were fined $250,000 (head coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 personally) after it was determined that they stole signals from opposing teams.
The Patriots have appeared in two Super Bowls since then, but have lost both, and there’s a certain segment of NFL fans that believe the Patriots are cheaters, and always will be cheaters, and further believe that they are unable to win championships unless they are cheating. If you are an NFL fan who believes both things, the ball deflation scandal has probably made you enraged and delighted in equal measures.
How would the Patriots be able to deflate a ball?
In the NFL, each team supplies the balls used during the game. Certain quarterbacks prefer their balls to feel a certain way (this is a real sentence you can type when writing about sports)—Tom Brady, for instance, appears to prefer lighter, more malleable balls, whereas another quarterback might prefer ones that are a bit more inflated. The league allows each team to tailor the balls that will be used by their quarterbacks, provided they stay within certain guidelines dictating how much the balls are allowed to weigh.
All teams mess with the weight and air pressure of footballs, but in this case the Patriots are accused of deflating balls far below what the NFL allows.
When did the deflation occur?
Here’s an alleged timeline of the ball inspection (sports!), per ESPN:
League sources have confirmed that the footballs were properly inspected and approved by referee Walt Anderson 2 hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, before they were returned to each team.
ESPN Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City reported that the Patriots’ footballs were tested at the half, reinflated at that time when they were found to be low, then put back in play for the second half, and then tested again after the game. All of the balls the Colts used met standards, according to the report.
If the balls were in fact inspected two hours before the game and then again at halftime, the Patriots would have had to go out of their way to circumvent the rules.
How did they get caught?
Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson reportedly told his coaches that a ball felt too soft after intercepting Brady in the second quarter of Sunday’s game. He handed the ball to the Colts’ equipment manager, and it was eventually brought to the attention of the league.
During that game, Colts safety Mike Adams twice intercepted Tom Brady and gave the balls to the Colts’ equipment manager to save — and both times there were concerns about the balls feeling underinflated, sources told Schefter.
What will happen to the Patriots?
This has yet to be decided, but illegally manipulating balls almost certainly isn’t a severe enough crime to overturn the result of the game or bar the Patriots from the Super Bowl. If the NFL decides the Patriots are guilty of tampering with the balls, the team will likely be fined and perhaps stripped of draft picks, which is what happened in their last cheating scandal.
What makes this a real question is that the NFL has a weird relationship to its rules, both for on- and off-the-field behavior. Recent punishments handed out by the NFL have tended to be all over the place. Most famously, of course, Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was initially suspended for only two games after punching out his wife at a casino. On the other end of the spectrum, multiple New Orleans Saints coaches were suspended for an entire season after it was discovered that they were paying players for big hits, some of which were allegedly intended to injure other players.
Obviously people are losing their minds over this, right?
Yes! It’s glorious. Some people want Patriots coach Bill Belichick to be fired. Or to be banned from the Super Bowl. Others want the entire team banned from the Super Bowl. Deadspin has the rundown of insane Deflategate sports columns.
Are there any good conspiracy theories?
Thank god, yes. Here is NFL commissioner Roger Goodell with close friend and Patriots owner Robert Kraft the night before the Patriots and their deflated balls thrashed the Colts.
As Roger Goodell evaluates DEFLATEGATE, let's remember he was at Robert Kraft's home night before AFC title game. pic.twitter.com/VFWc3P1PAB
— Jimmy Traina (@JimmyTraina) January 21, 2015
Regardless of the punishment handed down by the NFL, plenty of fans will accuse the league of going light on a franchise that has been caught cheating twice in seven years—and, as Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky notes, the ensuing circus is going to be a hell of a lot of fun.
Nothing can happen easily around here, because the NFL is a control-freak league uniquely unsuited to the practical exercise of that control. And we, the unaffiliated fans and unabashed scandal-groupies, are all better off for it.
UPDATE 5/6: According to a just-released report from the NFL, it’s “more probable than not” that Patriots personnel tried to break the rules. The report also found that Tom Brady was likely of the ball-deflating.