When word came out that the footballs the Patriots used in the first half of the AFC Championship game were under-inflated by 2.0 psi, just about everyone assumed that the Patriots cheated. Then the wild media frenzy began. Former quarterbacks all said they didn’t believe Brady, and almost every sports columnist or pundit quickly labeled the Patriots as “cheaters.”
One opinion piece at CNN called for the Patriots to be booted out of the Superbowl, others said Brady and Belichick should not be allowed to play or coach in it – and many thought they should both be suspended for a year. The media lynching of the Patriots Head Coach and quarterback made it sound someone found a smoking gun. Anyone defending the Patriots was accused of endorsing cheating and not caring about the integrity of the game.
This appears to me a kind of cultural group think. People reinforce each other’s opinions, pontificate, and it becomes the conventional wisdom, what everyone accepts as true. The Patriots are cheaters, Brady did it, Belichick must have known, yada yada…
But what if they aren’t guilty. What if the quick bandwagon effect of assuming Brady “must have known” is wrong?
1. The lack of evidence. Yes, the balls were under-inflated. But there is no evidence that the Patriots did it. The balls are given to the refs, who test them, make sure they are legal, put them in a ball bag and take that bag out onto the field. The only time the balls are touched after that is when they enter or leave a game – and that is with 70,000 people and who knows how many cameras watching! Not only is there no evidence that the Patriots did it intentionally, it’s hard to imagine how they could do it at all!
2. The strange uniformity of the Psi. 11 of the balls were down exactly 2 psi from the 12.5 they were supposed to be down. That shows that it couldn’t be a “quick job” by a ball boy sticking in a needle as the balls were exchanged. If it were done that way, the balls would have varying psi, there would be no time to be precise (and again, all that in front of both fans and cameras). More likely there is a systemic explanation in the way the balls were handled, prepared or moved. Since the refs measured them before taking them to the field, it’s questionable whether the Patriots intentionally caused that systemic error.
On Saturday Bill Belichick explained the extensive study they used to try to figure out what happened with the balls. I did chuckle when at one point he said, “I’ve felt dozens of balls this week, and know the different textures…” But they noted that their preparation and rubdown raises the Psi by 1.0. They talked about the impact of different aspects of the ball preparation and conditions.
First, it’s clear this is more complex than just air and weather. While Belichick insisted they were not in a heated room or sauna, could there be something about the ball preparation – something completely legal – that caused 11 of the balls to be the same, low Psi? Those who want to hate the Pats will of course say that’s his game – shed doubt, don’t reveal anything, and the league can do nothing. Yet it could indeed be true.
3. Other oddities. Supposedly the Colts complained about the balls back in November. Why not check the balls at game time – if there were suspicions, the refs could have done spot tests during the first half. And if they had suspicions in November, why wait until the AFC Championship to do anything?
Perhaps the league investigation will yield a smoking gun – or at least some real evidence implicating Brady and Belichick – and penalties would be warranted. I suspect in the end the NFL will not give out any individual penalties because there will be no evidence any particular person did something wrong. Perhaps they’ll penalize the organization based on circumstantial evidence. The NFL needs to look at the rules, procedures, and methods of oversight involving game balls. This kind of thing shouldn’t have happened – and if it happened innocently, the Patriots and their fans are the victims.
For Patriot fans bummed that they joy of the Superbowl preparation is lost to this inane controversy: cheer up. I’m a Vikings fan. You’re going to the Superbowl while enduring a scandal. My team had a losing season while enduring a severe scandal. Believe me, I’d rather be in your shoes!
Living in New England 20 years I’ve never really become a big Patriots fan. But after all this media attack on the Pats, I’m starting to become one! This video – so New England in its humor – sums up a typical Patriot fan response:- ‘they hate us ’cause they ain’t us.’ (Warning, some graphic language in the video)