Deflate This: Who Should Possess The Super Bowl Trophy?

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baby with football
“Hey, Dad, this ball feels a little soft.” Image credit: Gaborfromhungary.

So the Patriots deflated the football and Brady knew about it. The league has acted to punish both the player and the team. Was the punishment appropriate? And what about the American Conference Championship Game and the Super Bowl? Should the results stand?

The Background For Deflategate

There’s some scuttlebutt about the Patriots and deflated footballs being used during the Pats-Ravens conference semifinal game. But that accusation only concerned kicking balls (yes, they use a separate ball for kicks) and was made by the Ravens after the news broke about the real Deflategate — underinflated balls that the Patriots used during the conference championship game against the Colts.

Throw a flag on the Ravens; give them a 15-yard penalty for piling on. The kicking balls are controlled by the league and have nothing to do with the underinflated balls used by the Pats on every first half snap in the Colts game.

Is There Any Doubt?

Ted Wells, the lawyer who was charged with investigating the matter, found that it was ‘more probable then not’ that the Patriots tampered with the balls and that Brady knew what was going on.

First of all, Wells missed his calling — he should have been a meteorologist. ‘More probable than not’ is a phrase more suitable for thunderstorms than footballs. To understand the phrase ‘more probable than not,’ you have to know what the alternatives were. To a lawyer they would be ‘preponderance of the evidence’ and ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.’ These are the standards in civil and criminal cases, respectively. The former means more probable than not and the latter means open and shut.

There’s a whole lot of room in the ‘more probable than not’ category before it bumps up against ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ and to me the evidence is right on the line between the two categories.

The facts of the case are these: the footballs were found to be underinflated; a number of incriminating emails clearly implicate a locker room attendant, an equipment assistant, and Brady.

I suppose for ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,’ you would have to have a confession; but the evidence is very strong.

One thing is certain: Brady knew the balls were underinflated. The underinflation was discovered when the Colts intercepted a pass and the defender brought the ball to his bench and said it seemed soft. It’s impossible to believe that an Indianapolis defender could tell a ball was underinflated and Tom Brady, a student of every nuance of throwing a football, couldn’t.

Did Belichick Know?

There is no evidence that the Patriots’ coach, Bill Belichick, knew of the plan to lower the pressure of the balls. However, given Belichick’s history of crossing the line (he was fined $500,000 in ‘Spygate’), he should not be given the benefit of the doubt.

Since he rules Foxborough with an iron hand, I would say it is ‘more likely than not’ that he had knowledge of the chicanery. He’s probably smart enough to retain deniability. Which brings up this question: How could Brady, arguably the smartest quarterback to ever play the game, be so stupid as to send those incriminating emails?

Was The Punishment Appropriate?

Opinions of the severity of the punishment vary with opinions of the severity of the crime. A pound of air pressure in a football doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference — at least to those of us who only play or played at the sandlot level. But this is the apex of the sport, and a tiny advantage could make the difference between winning a Super Bowl and sulking all summer.

Considering that the Patriots beat the Colts badly, it would be hard to argue that the balls made a difference to the outcome of the game. But that is irrelevant. When the right defensive end is offside and the play goes to the other side of the field, so that the offside could not have affected the gain or loss on the play, the penalty is the same five yards that it would be if the offside player had made the tackle because of the advantage he gained by being offside.

All sports have rules that regulate the play of the game, with designated penalties for infractions. For example, in football if you cross the line of scrimmage before the ball is snapped, your team incurs a five yard penalty.

But fiddling with equipment is different. There are rules; but no designated penalties. Some infractions outside the play of the game threaten the integrity of the sport. If a team has an advantage that nobody knows about, the game is not played on a metaphorically level field.

That was why the league came down so hard on the Patriots in Spygate. The league had sent a directive stating that videotaping opponents in certain situations compromised the integrity of the game. The league got that one right in terms of punishment.

My personal opinion is that Brady and the Pats got off easy. The fact is that after every New England victory, in the back of everybody’s mind will always be the question: What did the Patriots do this time? Integrity is easy to lose and hard to get back.

Why Do They Do It?

Considering that Belichick is a brilliant coach and Brady is a superior quarterback, you have to wonder why they would do this. Is the pressure to win so intense that players, coaches, and others connected with major league sports teams (or teams at lower levels) feel they have to do anything to win?

And considering the use of steroids, the corking of bats, the use of illegal Little League players, and, in the instance of Tonya Harding, sending a thug to try to cripple an opponent (oh, yeah, the Saints did something like that, too), the answer, at least for many in sports, is yes.

Should The Patriots Have To Forfeit The Game?

Obama Patriots
The Patriots presented President Obama with a Patriots jersey and a signed helmet. Do you think he’ll try to give them back? Photo courtesy of the White House.

There is ample precedent for what to do when a team uses an illegal player: The team forfeits the game. This has long been the rule in school sports, and recently a Chicago Little League team had to relinquish a championship because they used illegal players. I don’t see much difference between using an illegal player and using an illegal football: A team gets an advantage it shouldn’t have.

Therefore, the Patriots should forfeit the American Conference Championship game.

So What About The Super Bowl?

Sometimes things work out in a way that doesn’t entirely make sense. The logic of this situation calls for the Patriots to forfeit the Indianapolis game but retain the Super Bowl Trophy. Granted they shouldn’t have played in the Super Bowl — the fact is they did. And they won (many would prefer to say the Seahawks lost). This kind of injustice occurs all the time in sports. If an umpire rules a runner safe when he should have been called out for the last out of the game, the ‘wrong’ team might win. Too bad; that’s the way it is.

Consider this: If calls had gone differently, the Cowboys wouldn’t have beaten the Lions, The Packers wouldn’t have beaten the Cowboys, and the Seahawks wouldn’t have beaten the Packers. The fact is The Seahawks played the Patriots in the Super Bowl and the Patriots won fair and square (as far as anybody knows). So the Patriots are the 2015 Super Bowl Champions. But in the backs of the minds of a lot of people, the value of the championship will always be a little bit deflated.

© Copyright 2015 Jon Plotkin, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Sports
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