From that single factual stipulation, all hell has broken loose. It has been a media field day and a frenzy of opinions and accusations about cheating that have largely narrowed down to focus on one individual, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. To put it lightly, Brady has been accused of arranging to have the balls deflated in defiance of the rules to gain a competitive advantage. Past players, including most notably members of the elite fraternity of NFL quarterbacks, have roundly dismissed Brady as a liar and a cheater.
All of the yelling and screaming, the character assassination and suggestions of what draconian penalties should be imposed, have come in the face of almost no factual information. Stories on the issue ultimately trace back to a single ESPN report from unnamed sources indicating that the Patriots footballs measured at halftime were 2 psi below the League requirement. From that report have come conclusions that the Patriots, and specifically Brady, arranged to have the balls deflated after they were officially checked by NFL officials prior to the game.
It used to be that the League oversaw the supply of footballs used by teams during NFL games, but after a request by quarterbacks to allow them to prepare their own balls for each game, the NFL changed its procedures to let each team provide the balls that they would use when they were on offense. New footballs are shiny and slippery, and the quarterbacks preferred to beat the balls up a bit to make them less shiny and easier to grip. As we have learned from reporting since this story broke, teams do all sorts of things to make the balls feel used, ranging from scuffing them to tossing them in a clothes dryer to rubbing them down in a sauna.
The current NFL rules set forth the following:
Section 1: The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case... The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.
Section 2: Each team will make 12 primary balls available for testing by the Referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game to meet League requirements.
That is about it. The rules stipulate the air pressure at a time certain prior to the game. There is no provision for retesting the balls during the game, and there is no consideration as to how air pressure might change under different game circumstances.
Even as the storm in the media continued, the NFL offered little factual information beyond acknowledging that game officials inspected the balls prior to the game and found them to be in compliance with the rules and confirming that the NFL began an investigation "based on information that suggested that [as measured at halftime] the game balls used by the New England Patriots were not properly inflated to levels required by the playing rules."
Numerous physicists consulted on the matter have observed that on a cold day footballs measured before a game in a warm room will necessarily lose some amount of pressure when subsequently taken outside. On the day in question, balls inflated to the permitted League minimum of 12.5 psi indoors and approved by the referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the game would necessarily have lost air pressure and dropped below the 12.5 psi threshold once they were taken outside. The extent to which this would explain a 2 psi loss in pressure is questionable, as estimates suggested a likely loss in pressure of 1.0 to 1.5 psi, but all of the numbers involved here are in question.
The media frenzy has a familiar tone to it. The analysis has been shallow, and the conclusions built on little factual evidence. We have a long history of rushing to conclusions and assigning blame on stories where we have few fact in hand--and getting it wrong. We convicted Gary Condit of killing Chandra Levy. We knew that Richard Jewell was the Atlanta Olympic Park Bomber. Many were certain that Sunil Tripathi was one of the Boston Marathon Bombers before he committed suicide. It is one of the worst attributes of our modern media culture.
It may be that Tom Brady paid to have the Patriots equipment manager go through the bag of game balls on the sideline during the AFC Championship Game and take a bit of air out of each ball. If so, he will become the Barry Bonds of football, forever vilified despite being one of the best players in the history of the game. But I suspect that once again we may have rushed ahead of the evidence. It may turn out that the extent of the decrease in the ball pressure attributed to an anonymous source by ESPN was an estimate. It may turn out that the different gauges were used. It may be largely explainable by the process of ball preparation and changes in temperature or other factors. And it may turn out that the entire story was a lot of hot air, when the NFL acknowledges that they actually were sloppy in their measurements, because, frankly, no one ever gave it that much thought.
Brady being guilty as charged would actually be the easiest conclusion to deal with. Then the League can move on to the sentencing phase, and the media and pundits and fraternity of former NFL quarterbacks can argue about what the appropriate punishment should be, for Brady and for the Patriots. But if that turns out not to be the answer, if the forensic investigation firm hired by the League concludes that there was no tampering or wrong doing, there should be a lot of egg on a lot of faces. If the past is any measure, however, few will acknowledge their own culpability for the media circus, or the defamation of character that endued. Most reporters and sports pundits will simply move on to the next story, while many will shake their heads and suggest that the investigation was phony and the NFL covered up evidence to protect its own. We are not prone to introspection, after all. We do not like to look in the mirror and consider our own role in how things got this bad.
As for Tom Brady, his world is never going to be the same. Even if he is vindicated on all counts, the damage has been done and he will be left to ask, in famous words of Reagan Administration Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who was found innocent of corruption charges for which he had been widely vilified, "Where do I go to get my reputation back."