Larry Warford is a guard for the Detroit Lions. He is six feet three inches tall and weighs 332 pounds. His job is to crouch, fifty to sixty times, one day a week, on a field that is 120 yards long and 53.33 yards wide. And then to leap up, collide with men of similar size, and move them out of his way so that one of the smaller, faster men on his own team can run by them while carrying an American football. Or: his job consists of keeping those same large men from running past him long enough for his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, to throw the ball down the field, often to a man two inches taller and a hundred pounds lighter than Warford is, whose given name is Calvin Johnson, but whom everyone knows simply as Megatron, after a giant robot toy.
Warford has never caught a football in a game. He’s only touched a live ball once, he told ESPN one Monday last October, in the seventh grade, when a fumble “literally dropped into my hands.” ESPN was curious about Warford’s history as a receiver because the previous day, in a game against the Minnesota Vikings, halfway through the third quarter, Warford had not leapt up and slammed into his peers across the way, but, for the first time in his life, run past them, found himself open, and looked to catch a pass. “I would have caught it, and I would have been on [ESPN’s] Top 10 [highlight reel],” Warford told the network. “I was just going to shake everybody’s hand like a man and like I had been there before. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Wouldn’t have any elaborate celebration. I would have just shaken everybody’s hand like a man, you know. Thank you for your contribution and all that.”
As it happened, Stafford, the quarterback, was tackled four yards behind the line of scrimmage—sacked—by the Vikings’ Everson Griffen before he had a chance to throw Warford’s way. Thus ended Warford’s career as what is known, in football-speak, as an eligible receiver. But this innovative play would have imitators.
Like so many theatrical spectacles, American football is a barely civilized simulacrum of what was once a fatal ritual. In the same way that the tragic drama slowly replaced actual human sacrifice or public execution, games like football have slowly replaced ritual combat, if not, as yet, war itself. The game consists of eleven men attempting to violently enforce their will on eleven other men, with prowess evinced by their ability to move the ball where they want to more often and more efficiently than their opponents. A small encyclopedia of rules and regulations has evolved over time in order to standardize this conflict, to keep it interesting, and to keep it competitive. As is the way with these things, regulation usually follows innovation. The forward pass wasn’t fully deployed until 1913, when the delightfully named Notre Dame coach Eddie Cochem unleashed it against the team from West Point, known as Army. In the New York Times, Harry Cross wrote like someone who had seen the future:
WEST POINT, N.Y.-The Notre Dame eleven swept the Army off its feet on the Plains this afternoon and buried the soldiers under a 35-to-13 score. The Westerners flashed the most sensational football that has been seen in the East this year, baffling the Cadets with a style of open play and a perfectly developed forward pass which carried the victors down the field 30 yards at a clip. Football men marveled at this startling display of open football. Bill Roper, former head coach at Princeton, who was one of the officials of the game, said that he had always believed that such playing was possible under the new rules but that he had never seen the forward pass developed to such a state of perfection.
The new rules Roper mentioned had been implemented in 1906 as a way of making the game safer. Eighteen people had died playing football in 1905, and President Roosevelt had personally insisted that the rules be changed lest the game be banned outright. As the forward pass gained in popularity, the shape of the ball narrowed, making it less like a Rugby ball—the forward pass is illegal in Rugby—and easier to throw. However, not everyone was eligible to catch these new-fangled balls: of the seven players who line up directly on the line of scrimmage, only the ends are allowed to catch passes; hence the tight end’s unique, shifting role, now a blocker like Larry Warford, now a receiver like Calvin Johnson.
Within this framework is some wiggle room: a team is allowed a maximum of five eligible receivers, so as long as a player who is typically ineligible informs the referee that he is eligible and a corresponding player declares as ineligible, a team can manipulate which players can catch a pass and which cannot. On the play where Warford declared himself eligible, one of the receivers declared himself ineligible, essentially becoming a lineman in Warford’s place, even though he lined up normally, split wide out by the sideline. The idea being that the defense, despite being told by the refs what was going on, might nevertheless be confused by the thought of covering a 330-pound man like a receiver, or at least hesitant about leaving an actual receiver uncovered. And sure enough, the Minnesota linebacker theoretically responsible for covering Warford didn’t do so, leaving him wide open. He was the only one, however, and the rest of the defense behaved normally and sacked Stafford.
“When we called it, it was like, here we go, I’m about to be the hero,” Warford told ESPN. “And I wasn’t the hero. So it happens. I was happy that [Coach Jim Caldwell] called [the play]. Obviously he had faith in my catching abilities, but it didn’t go down as planned. I’ll never have that opportunity again.” After the Lions went on to win the game anyway, Caldwell laughed about the play: Warford had good hands, he insisted, “I’m sad you didn’t get a chance to see it.”
Thirty percent of the people in the Minneapolis market watched Warford’s missed opportunity, sixty percent of households with a television. In Detroit, the percentages were twenty-five and fifty, respectively. Someone who worked for the New England Patriots was watching, too—as their coach, Bill Belichick, would later intimate—and noted the play’s design, despite its failure. And that is how, three months later, in a divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, down by fourteen in front of forty-two million people, the Patriots sent four offensive lineman onto the field instead of five and had pass-catching running back Shane Vereen declare himself ineligible. Then, when the ball was snapped, Vereen ran backwards as though he was about to catch a screen pass. The defender assigned to cover Vereen was confused. He had just been told Vereen was ineligible, and yet here he was acting like a receiver. This split second hesitation left the tight end, Michael Hoomanawanui, open for a first down. The Ravens’ head coach, John Harbaugh, was confused too. He ran onto the field to demand that he have time to substitute personnel in response to this new formation, drawing a penalty. But it was no use, and the Patriots used the formation to pick up several crucial first downs on the way to a comeback victory. Harbaugh was livid. Nobody had ever seen such a play before, he insisted after the game, and he pointedly refused to comment on whether he thought the play was dirty or cheap.
Informed of Harbaugh’s anger after the game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady uttered a phrase that will live in infamy for those of us who follow this twisted national pastime more closely than is probably advisable. “Maybe those guys should study the rule book and figure it out,” Brady said. “We knew what we were doing.” This seemingly innocuous rejoinder is significant for two reasons. First, because its smacks of gloating, which the Patriots almost never do, lest they incur the wrath of the famously withholding Belichick. Second, and more importantly, if there is a team least in a position to lecture the rest of the NFL on the contents of the rule book, that team is the New England Patriots.
In 2007, in what became known as “Spygate,” the Patriots had been fined $1.5 million and docked a first round draft pick for filming the defensive signals of their divisional rival, the New York Jets, from the sidelines during a game. Teams are allowed to film from elsewhere in the stadium, but the look of a team pointing cameras at the opposing sideline gives the impression that technology has made the sport something other than the simple contest of wills it presents itself as, so the NFL disallows it. It may seem odd that it is legal to film from one place in a stadium but not another, but only until you realize just how many cameras are recording a professional football game at any given time. If a team really wanted to record the opposing coaches, they could simply stash someone in a front row seat with a cell-phone camera, and so the sideline becomes just about the only place where such a ban could reasonably be enforced. When asked about Spygate, Belichick has always emphasized the absurdity of forbidding recording in one location on the field when it is not only permitted but practically ubiquitous five feet away. The fans, the media and the press are all encouraged to record the game, but the team that owns the stadium where it is being played cannot? Please. But then, if there is one contradiction that has defined Belichick’s reign atop the NFL, it’s his refusal to keep up appearances in a game where so much relies on their interpretation, as evidenced by the agonizing hermeneutics of instant replay. In today’s NFL, thanks in part to Belichick’s video library, defensive coaches no longer signal plays from the sideline, but relay them directly into the defensive captain’s helmet via radio, as the offense has done for decades.
Spygate was not an isolated incident. Rumors had swirled for years about the Patriots’ bugging locker rooms, stealing play sheets left around by opposing teams, and even serving opposing teams warm Gatorade instead of cold. Whether these allegations have any basis in fact or are just the sort of noise that follows any historically successful person, place, or thing in a highly competitive landscape is an open question. Certainly they are nothing new for Boston fans, who remember similar stories about Red Auerbach, patriarch of the Boston Celtics, who won nine titles between 1957 and 1966. And in fairness, even if it could be assumed that all NFL teams push the limit the way the Pats do, the latter are by necessity the best and most effective cheaters in the league simply by virtue of being the best at winning games. No doubt there are teams who cheat more and win less than the Patriots, as surely as there are teams who cheat less and win less, and teams who cheat less and win almost as much—but rest assured, nobody cheats more and wins more than the New England Patriots.
How much have the Patriots won? Since Belichick took over the team in 2000, they have won ten more playoff games than any other team, two more championships than any other team, and fourteen more regular-season games than their next closest rival, the Indianapolis Colts, of which more in a moment. More impressive—or more suspicious—is the fact that their average margin of victory in that frame is more than eight points, almost twice that of the Colts, the Steelers, or the Packers, who have won nearly as many games but by an average of around five points.
Given this history, it is easy to see how hearing Brady admonishing the Ravens to read the rule book could prompt Baltimore to drop a dime on the Patriots. “Two concerns came up as of yesterday on footballs at New England,” Sean Sullivan, the Colts equipment manager, said in an email to Ryan Grigson, the Colts’ general manager, a week before they were to play the Patriots in the AFC championship game. “First off the special teams coordinator from the Baltimore Ravens called [Colts’ Head] Coach Pagano and said that they had issues last week at the game that when [Baltimore was] kicking they were given new footballs instead of the ones that were prepared correctly.” NFL teams are allowed to prepare both the balls used for kicking and the balls used on offense, so long as these balls pass inspection before the game. “As far as the gameballs are concerned,” Sullivan went on,
it is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys for the patriots will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller football so he can grip it better, it would be great [if] someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don’t get an illegal advantage.
The Colts’ Grigson forwarded this email to VP of NFL operations Mike Kensil and Senior VP of League Operations David Gardi. Kensil said he would be at the game, and forwarded the email on to three other officials, who said they would raise the issue with head referee Walt Anderson.
NFL rules stipulate that the pressure inside the football be set between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. A lower pressure makes the ball softer and easier to grip and to catch. A higher pressure makes the ball harder, which can allow a quarterback to get more spin on the ball, increasing long-distance accuracy. Anyone who has watched enough Patriots football will know that Brady plays a soft-ball game, in that he throws a lot of short passes that are often difficult to catch. Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback for Green Bay, and the consensus best player in the game, is the opposite: he is famous for the uncanny accuracy of his long, arcing passes, and he likes the ball over-inflated. “I like to push the limit to how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take air out of it,” Rodgers told Phil Simms before a game last November, two months before everything surrounding pounds per square inch became the subject of intense criminal forensics.
In a previous era, or with a different team, or perhaps if Brady had not said what he did, it is likely that the league would have informed the Patriots that they had received a report from an opposing team and would be on the lookout for any shenanigans with the footballs. But no such warning was issued, and, sure enough, cameras later revealed that after the twelve Patriots balls (eleven for the offense, one for the kicking) passed a pregame inspection, locker room attendant Jim McNally took them into a bathroom for about a minute and half before bringing them onto the field. Play commenced, and the first half ended with the Patriots up 17 to 7. Brady had thrown one touchdown and one interception. And this is where things get weird.
What we know for certain is that, during halftime, the eleven Patriots game balls were taken inside and remeasured by two separate officials and were found to be, on average, 1.2 pounds below the 12.5 pound threshold, though the measurements differed by about a half a pound, depending on which gauge was used. So, with the low-reading gauge, the least-pressurized Patriots’ ball registered at 10.5, but it was 10.9 on the higher gauge. This difference would turn out to be significant, because once the officials refilled the Patriots’ balls to 12.5, where they had been set before the game, they began testing the Colts’ balls for comparison. Of the four they tested, three were under the 12.5 limit on one gauge but OK on the other. (The Colts’ balls had been set at 13 psi before the game.)
The Patriots would later claim that the NFL’s Kensil himself approached their sideline at halftime to inform them,“We weighed the balls and you guys are in big fucking trouble.” In any event, Brady played the second half with fully inflated footballs and went 12 of 14 with two touchdowns and no interceptions, as the Patriots blew out the Colts 45-7 in a game that was not nearly as exciting as its NFC counterpart between the Seahawks and the Packers, and which came down to a botched onside kick.
At 1 AM the morning after the game, the Indianapolis Star’s Bob Kravitz tweeted that a league source had told him that the Patriots may have deflated footballs and that there was more to come. By the time Brady went on the radio Monday morning to talk about the game, the hosts were ready with questions about the deflated balls. “I think I’ve heard it all at this point,” Brady said, audibly rolling his eyes. After the show Brady received a text from Jim Jastremski, another locker room attendant, asking Brady to call him when he got a second. They spoke on the phone for thirteen minutes. Later in the morning, the two exchanged text messages:
“You good Jonny boy?” Brady texted.
“Still nervous; so far so good though. I’ll be alright,” Jastremski responded.
“You didn’t do anything wrong bud,” Brady typed back.
“I know; I’ll be all good,” Jastremski wrote.
Later on Monday, NFL senior VP David Gardi sent a letter to the Patriots informing them that the halftime inspection, “which involved each ball being inspected twice with different gauges, revealed that none of the Patriots’ game balls were inflated to the specifications required under Rule 2, Section 1. In fact, one of the game balls was inflated to 10.1 psi, far below the requirement of 12-1/2 to 13-1⁄2 psi. In contrast, each of the Colts’ game balls that was inspected met the requirements set forth above.”
On Tuesday, Kravitz reported that the balls had been tested at halftime because Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson had noticed the ball felt soft when he intercepted Brady near the end of the first half. Jackson denied it, and Kravitz was forced to clarify “Jackson told me Monday he did not notice the ball seemed under-inflated, but my source tells me that’s when the Colts became suspicious.”
Then, later in the day, Chris Mortensen of ESPN reported that a league source had told him that all eleven of the Patriots game balls were a full 2 pounds below the 12.5 minimum, and it was then, as the media was gearing up for the Super Bowl anyway, that things went absolutely crazy. Reporters from all corners weighed in, demanding that Belichick and Brady be suspended or insisting that the whole thing was no big deal. Some said Brady should be allowed to play with the pressure however he liked, and some said he should be banned for life. The combination of pre–Super Bowl hype and the salaciousness of the story made for some ridiculous moments. On the website of Time magazine, one reporter insisted that Brady and Belichick should be suspended from the Super Bowl for their crimes against the Miami Dolphins in the AFC championship, though the Dolphins had not been anywhere near the AFC championship game since the late 1990s. A correction was quickly appended.
On Thursday, a visibly shaken Brady gave a stilted press conference that appeared to confirm the worst. Erik Frenz, fully in the tank, reported for the Boston Globe:
One by one, the awful questions were thrown at the Patriots quarterback like monkeys throwing poop at the wall, hoping one would hit and cause the cool, collected QB to crack. There were some good questions sprinkled in, but trying to hear them is like trying to find water in a desert…
Yelling and screaming and interrogating and finger-pointing and condescension and anger. At one point, Brady couldn’t help but react to the absurdity of the situation, and the grandiose scene that was taking place.
“This isn’t ISIS,” he said. “No one’s dying.”
That Saturday, halfway between the disputed AFC game and the almost forgotten, at this point, Super Bowl, Bill Belichick gave a surprise press conference which began with a disclaimer: “I’m not a scientist. I’m not an expert in footballs. I’m not an expert in football measurements. I’m just telling you what I know. I would not say I’m Mona Lisa Vito of the football world, as she was in the car-expertise area,” a reference to Marisa Tomei’s trial-clinching expert witness from My Cousin Vinny. Then he reintroduced the world to a concept from middle school science class: the ideal gas law.
The Patriots’ PSI numbers were explained, Belichick insisted, by the fact that the game had been played in the cold and the wet, which will lower the PSI inside of a football by as much as a pound and a half. The coach urged people to try the experiment at home for themselves. The Colts’ balls did not show a fully corresponding decrease because they were kept in trash bags on the sidelines in order to stay dry while the Patriots were on offense, which, given the score, was most of the time.
This set off another firestorm, as everyone weighed in on the science. Asked for comment, science guy Bill Nye said what Belichick said was nonsense, while just as many lined up to support his analysis. Reached for comment, Tomei said she found Belichick “pretty darn believable.” Could her character have bailed out Brady? “That’s a lot of pressure on Mona Lisa.” Tomei said, “I think she’d want to because, you know, who doesn’t love him? But, I don’t know, ultimately she’s a New Yorker. So she’s a Jets fan.”
The story continued to rage, right up until the Patriots defeated the Seahawks 28-24 in the Super Bowl, a game in which Brady, playing with perfectly inflated balls, led his team back from a ten point deficit against the best pass defense in a decade. This seemed to settle things a bit, and the league deflected all questions by insisting that a full, independent report on the allegations would be conducted by attorney Ted Wells and released in “a couple weeks.“ A few hours before the big game, the NFL Network’s Ian Rappaport had posted on NFL.com, apparently for the first time, that many of the Patriots’ balls were only ”a few tics” under the limit.
This wasn’t good enough for New England executives, who in the following weeks had multiple email exchanges with the league office demanding that they publicly correct Mortensen’s ESPN report that the balls were a full two pounds under the limit, and also that Wells’s investigation be expanded to include the leaks from the league office. Patriots spokesperson Stacy James summarized the situation in an email to NFL spokesperson Greg Aiello on February 17:
What is unconscionable to me is that the league holds data that could very well exonerate us from any wrongdoing and completely dismiss the rampant reports and allegations of nefarious actions, but the league refuses to provide the data. I cannot comprehend how withholding the range of PSIs measured in the game is beneficial to the NFL or the Patriots. I can only assume, based on the scientific evidence that has been provided to us by multiple independent scientists that the PSI numbers will be within the scientific range. If we had been provided this data within days of the original report, we could have changed the narrative of this story before it led all national news and the damage was done. It has been over 4 weeks and we still can’t get a simple detail that I assume was available the night of the AFC Championship Game!
Patriots general counsel Robyn Glaser forwarded this email to NFL general counsel Jeff Pash, adding that the Patriots “hereby DEMAND that the misinformation included in this ESPN piece be formally and publicly corrected by the League IMMEDIATELY. Preferably within the next few hours but, in any case, no later than the end of the day today.”
Pash replied quickly, saying, “Once the investigation is completed and the facts are known, any incorrect reporting will be shown for what it is. I have no reason to think [the leaks] came from our office but I certainly do not condone leaks which do not serve anyone’s interest.” Adding later that he had “doubts that piecemeal disclosures are likely to accomplish much,” and that “[i]f anything, I would think they are likely to prompt additional questions, additional stories, and additional irresponsible speculation and commentary.”
Glaser called this response “pretty disingenuous” and attempted to clarify: “if the League is disclosing information that is correcting inaccuracies and misinformation that are currently hammering away at our brand, we WELCOME the additional stories and commentary.” Then Glaser got personal:
Jeff, you need to step up. I can’t tell you the number of times you’ve told me that you and your office work for us member clubs. It has been made resoundingly clear to us that your words are just a front. They have no substance at all. If you worked for us, you would already have released today a statement to the effect of, “ESPN, you’ve got it wrong. You do not have full information, you are irresponsibly reporting information that is untrue and you need to stop. Furthermore, as you now know and report reporting yourselves, your original story that 11 of 12 balls were 2 pounds below the minimum allowable psi was just blatantly wrong, we know that because we have the information and here it is…”
The last email in the chain is Pash’s reply:
Good Morning Robyn,
I have given a fair amount of thought to how to respond to so personal and accusatory a note. I don’t think a point-by-point reply is likely to accomplish much. My replies to you yesterday were candid and respectful, and that will continue. They are not what you are looking for, but that does not make them disingenuous. I work for the Patriots, as well as for 31 other clubs and the Commissioner. Sometimes that creates tension, as it apparently has here. Jeff
While this was transpiring behind the scenes, publicly the story appeared to be dying down, and the conventional wisdom became that the Patriots would be exonerated for lack of evidence. Most likely this resulted from the team disseminating information off the record to their numerous contacts in the media. When the team visited the White House for their presidential victory lap (a visit for which Brady was notably absent), Obama said, “I usually tell a lot of jokes at these events. But with the Patriots in town I was worried that 11 out of 12 of them would fall flat.” He added quickly to the groans and laughter, “That whole story got blown a little out of proportion.” Then everyone’s attention shifted to the NFL Draft, which had just been elongated from two days to three.
One day after the draft ended, on May 6, league commissioner Roger Goodell released the 243-page report by “independent investigator” Ted Wells. The Wells Report seemed to surprise many observers in concluding that it was ”more probable than not” that Brady had long been ”generally aware” of a scheme in which McNally and Jastremski illegally deflated footballs below the 12.5-pound threshold after they had passed inspection from the referees. The report revealed the testing numbers from the day of the Colts game: 11.5 on average on one gauge and 11.2 on average on the other, which made them far less egregious than the 10.5 average suggested by ESPN. So far, so good, for the Patriots and Brady. But the report also included (and foregrounded) a series of texts between the two locker room attendants, the most damning of which was from May 9 the previous year (that is, long before Deflategate), in which Jim McNally requests that his boss, Jastremski, steal him a new pair of running shoes from the team’s supply:
McNally: You working
McNally: Nice dude….jimmy needs some kicks….lets make a deal…..come on help the deflator
And then, eight minutes later:
McNally: Chill buddy im just fuckin with you ….im not going to espn……..yet
The Patriots explained these texts first by pointing out that there is no football being played in May, and second by claiming that McNally’s request for running shoes and his description of himself as “the deflator” referred to his attempts to lose weight. This explanation was mocked from coast to coast. The national response to the Wells Report was summed up in an Esquire headline: “The Patriots Cheated.”
However, it soon became clear the report also contained good news for the defense, even beyond the PSI numbers.
First, the report indicated that Walt Anderson, the head referee for the Colts game, couldn’t recall which of the two gauges he’d used to measure the balls before the game, though he thought it was the one that gave out higher readings. This meant a ball that measured 12.5 before the game would have measured 12.1 on the second, lower-reading gauge. Not only that, but he had neglected to log the actual readings for each ball, noting only that they were close enough to pass inspection. It was also revealed that, contrary to Gardi’s letter to the Patriots in January, exactly none of the balls had registered as low as 10.1, and three of the four Colts balls had in fact measured below the legal limit on the lower-reading gauge.
Second, in a tacit acknowledgement that the science was not on his side, Wells had hired a firm known as Exponent to handle the numbers. Exponent is infamous for providing tobacco companies and climate deniers with plausible scientific-sounding explanations for deeply unscientific conclusions. Hiring them in a case against the Patriots was waving a red flag in the face of a region home to more universities per capita than any other on the planet. Over the next three months, study after study rolled in attacking the science of the Wells Report, from sources ranging from MIT to the American Enterprise Institute. Basically, the reports concluded, Belichick had been right. The cold and wet could well have accounted for some or even all of the deflation of the balls.
Finally, as many critics pointed out, the Wells Report had been presented as an independent investigation when in reality it was anything but. Any and all evidence that implicated the Patriots was brought to the fore, while any that didn’t was buried in the footnotes. While the initial reports had highlighted the PSI numbers, now the story was the text messages.
But none of this had worked its way through the digestive tract of the media before Goodell, a week after the release of the report, announced his punishment: a four-game suspension for Tom Brady and the forfeiture by the Patriots of their first and fourth round draft picks in 2016. This was a historic, if not entirely unanticipated, punishment.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft was initially furious when the report was released but appeared to calm down as it became clear how little support he enjoyed throughout the league. Goodell had gone into the year with Kraft as his biggest champion: after the commissioner was criticized for ignoring evidence that Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice had brutally beaten his fiancée in a casino elevator, Kraft defended him even as other owners questioned Goodell’s judgment. But now the positions were reversed: Kraft was enraged, but all the other owners began to look more favorably on Goodell. When Kraft agreed not to contest the punishment, it was widely thought that this was in exchange for an understanding that Brady’s suspension would be reduced or vacated when the players’ union filed its appeal, especially when Goodell used a strange loophole in the collective bargaining agreement to appoint himself the arbiter.
Over ten hours, on June 23, Brady made his appeal through the ordinary league channels. While the science question had dominated the media conversation, the appeal focused chiefly on procedural grounds. Brady’s team of lawyers emphasized questions like: Why hadn’t the league punished similar tampering cases as harshly in the past? The Vikings had been caught heating balls on the sideline as recently as December and had gotten off with a warning, and the rule book stipulated that equipment violations carried a fine of only $25,000 dollars, with no mention of suspensions or lost draft picks. Moreover, this policy was clearly aimed at teams, not players, who had never received a copy of the game day manual specifying what the regulations in question were and what punishments could be expected for violating them.
Goodell waited for more than a month to uphold the suspension, and, as before, when the Wells Report had shifted criteria from PSI numbers to text messages, Goodell’s decision now emphasized not Brady’s presumed guilt but his failure to cooperate with the investigation, in particular by revealing that Brady had destroyed his cell phone from the period in question. And, as before, this information was leaked to ESPN in advance of the decision’s announcement. Brady’s broken phone was on the cover of the New York tabloids the next day. Staying one step ahead of the union, the league also preemptively filed a lawsuit to uphold the result of Goodell’s arbitration, shifting the location of the union’s inevitable appeal from Minnesota, where the NFL Players’ Association had hoped to score a favorable judge, to New York, where the judges were thought to be more business-friendly.
When the case opened in the Southern District Court of New York, Judge Richard Berman seemed none too pleased to be adjudicating such matters. He spent the first two weeks imploring the two sides to come to a settlement. When settlement talks failed to produce an agreement, the appeal proceeded, and from the start things went poorly for the league. Berman repeatedly asked the NFL for direct evidence of Brady’s cheating and was repeatedly directed to the text messages, which, though damning, technically rely on inference, making them circumstantial. However unlikely, it could be the case that McNally was in fact trying to lose weight, while significantly lower PSI numbers than those that had been recorded would only have been explicable by some kind of tampering. Meanwhile Brady’s lawyers once again emphasized procedure, arguing that Goodell had violated the collective bargaining agreement by appointing himself arbiter in Brady’s case.
On September 3, one week before the season was scheduled to kick off with the Patriots hosting the Pittsburgh Steelers, Berman delivered his ruling. The judge did not mention the science but pointed instead to three key deficiencies in the league’s case. First, Brady had received inadequate notice both of his potential discipline and of his alleged misconduct when it turned out that Brady’s team had specifically asked Wells whether he needed Brady’s phone before Brady had had it destroyed, a pretty common procedure, in any case, for someone of his profile. Second, the league had disallowed Brady’s team from cross-examining General Counsel Jeff Pash—he of the February emails—during the appeal, on the grounds that he was helping to administer it, even though Pash had been instrumental in preparing the Wells Report in the first place. “Denied the opportunity to examine Pash at the arbitral hearing, Brady was prejudiced,” Berman wrote. “He was foreclosed from exploring, among other things, whether the Pash/Wells Investigation was truly ‘independent,’ and how and why the NFL’ s General Counsel came to edit a supposedly independent investigation report.” Furthermore it was “seemingly inconsistent” for Wells’s law firm to act as counsel to the NFL while simultaneously conducting an “independent” investigation. Finally, the league had failed to provide Brady access to the evidence against him, in particular interview notes and investigative files. Ultimately, Berman concluded, “Because there was no notice of a four-game suspension in the circumstances presented here, Commissioner Goodell may be said to have dispensed his own brand of industrial justice,” which an arbiter is not entitled to do. Brady was reinstated and promptly undressed the hapless Pittsburgh Steelers on national television before a record-breaking audience. With fully inflated balls, he completed 25 of 32 passes for 288 yards, 4 touchdowns, and no interceptions. In his next game, after the Buffalo Bills and their fans spent a week taunting Brady about his supposed cheating, Brady threw for a record 466 yards and 3 touchdowns in a 40-32 win.
And thus, and perhaps somewhat anticlimactically, in a Manhattan courtroom overseen by a judge who was not a football fan, Deflategate came to its ignominious conclusion. The NFL has appealed Berman’s ruling, but this now has more to do with the precedent set by the union victory in matters of discipline than with any one player’s perfidy. Nearly nine months of at times learned, at times not so learned, debate came to an end. Deflategate was over.
Yet we are left to scratch our heads. As the President said, the whole thing was blown out of proportion; this we now know for sure. But why was it blown out of proportion, and by whom?
The Patriots’ fans—a term which is short, we remember, for “fanatics”—have not been shy about offering conspiracy theories, most involving a league hell-bent on punishing New England for hogging all the glory while smaller-market teams watch their fan bases wither on the vine. ESPN, for its part, has recently quoted an anonymous owner describing Deflategate as a “make-up call” supplementing an insufficient punishment for Spygate seven years ago. Some depict the whole thing as a fabrication deployed to distract from the league’s truly disgraceful cover-up of the data on the long-term effects of concussions on former players, while Goodell’s critics maintain that the scandal was an embattled commissioner’s effort to save his job by turning on a high-profile supporter to restore his credibility.
But the problem with conspiracy theories like these is not that they get the facts wrong—each is plausible enough, in its way—but that they posit some all-powerful, conscious agent whose putative responsibility for these facts exceeds all but the most exceptional human capacities. Theirs is a world populated only by gods and by sheep, when it’s the ability to make and break rules that distinguishes people from both. The reason why the Deflategate story had such staying power is not because one side or the other was an all-powerful puppet master operating outside the law but precisely because the two sides were so perfectly matched. Goodell and the Patriots each combined a respect for certain rules with a contempt for others. In the courtroom the Patriots effectively pleaded guilty but emphasized the excessive punishment and procedural violations, while the league clung tenaciously to the text messages in order to justify stepping so far outside the sentencing guidelines. In the court of public opinion, these strategies were reversed: where the Patriots relied on the science to insist they had done nothing wrong, the league focused on Brady’s suspicious behavior, and the procedure of covering it up, to stay one step ahead of the data. The result was a lengthy and intense media battle that included a seemingly endless number of reversals as the combatants undermined in one place the positions they held somewhere else. The consensus on what, exactly, had happened, and who, exactly, was to blame must have shifted back and forth six times over the past eight months.
This revealed a powerful anxiety on the part of people who do not play football for a living but nevertheless depend on those who do for their increasingly considerable paychecks: coaches, commissioners, commentators. Football is a game whose outcome depends on a contingent sequence of events. Believing that somebody else is secretly in total control comforts us by encouraging the fantasy that total control is possible. The melancholic, Giorgio Agamben once wrote, mourns a power he never had as a way of sustaining the possibility of possessing it at all. And so it is not only with the amateur conspiracy fanatics but also with their highly compensated counterparts in the league office. If someone like Belichick really is out there bullying small-market teams and stealing their wins, then it is clearly necessary to employ a commissioner like Goodell, who refers to himself as ‘”the Enforcer.”
None of this changes the fact that football is a game so physical and demanding that effective cheating is both extremely difficult and nearly constant. The classic example of this is the penalty for what is called holding, which can be called when an offensive lineman grabs onto a defensive player to keep him from tackling someone or when a defensive player grabs an offensive one to keep him from catching the ball. I say “can be,” because the reality is that holding happens on nearly every play, and it is up to the refs to determine which examples of it are egregious enough, or impactful enough, to warrant the stiff ten-yard penalty it commands. So, for example, if someone is running towards one sideline and his teammate obviously holds someone all the way across the field, it usually isn’t called, because it doesn’t have much of an impact—even though, yes, theoretically, the runner could cut back or break free or whatever, which would suddenly make said hold quite significant. Likewise, a relatively innocuous hold will be called if it appears to have an outsize impact. Given the difficulty of tackling NFL players, even minor holds can create creases for runners to exploit, or, on the other side, ruin the timing of a pass play.
I am happy to say that usually the refs do a very good job of using this discretion. So, for example, in the Patriots’ first Super Bowl victory over the St. Louis Rams, a fumble recovery that had been returned for a touchdown was reversed when Patriots defensive end Willie McGinest was called for holding Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk in a bear hug, preventing him from getting open. McGinest’s hold, went the logic, forced quarterback Kurt Warner to hold onto the ball, which led to his being sacked, fumbling, and apparently ending the game when the fumble was returned for a touchdown. In the moment, we were all convinced that McGinest had just lost the game for the Pats—“He’s the new Bill Buckner!” the announcers crowed—especially when the Rams went on to score on the subsequent play and tie the game up shortly thereafter. But, as it happened, the Patriots drove down the field in the final seconds anyway and kicked a field goal to win.
But the non-calls are important, too. Consider one of the most famous catches in league history, the Helmet Catch, completed by the Giants against the Patriots on 4th and a million with two minutes left in Superbowl 42. On said play nearly all of the Patriots’ defensive linemen were flagrantly held, preventing them from sacking Giants quarterback Eli Manning. But there was no call, and as a result one of the great catches remained a great catch. Many New England fans complained about this for years. But it no longer bothers me, precisely because the catch in question was so absurdly difficult and unlikely, and I want a game in which catches like that count. But the point is that the management of rule breaking is not only part of football, it’s the game’s condition of possibility. If holding is allowed, the game becomes impossible. But it’s also impossible to legislate perfectly, so everyone does the best they can.
Richard Sherman, the charismatic and incredibly talented cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks, put it well when asked about the Patriots’ scandals in the wake of the Seahawks’ loss to the Patriots in the Superbowl. “Everybody does their things a little differently, but at the end of the day, it’s handled between the lines,” Sherman said.
And if they man up and they beat you straight up, they beat you straight up. You can say they knew your plays or they watched this or they watched that, but a lot of times if you watch film good enough, you find good indicators. You find things. So if you’re studying the game the right way, you go out there understanding what plays are coming, and you know when the plays are coming. But can you execute? Can 11 guys stop the other 11 from executing their play? And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s about. You can say you stole scripts or whatever it is, but they still have to win the game. They still have to intercept the ball. They still have to execute. Eleven guys have to execute at the same time. And that’s what [the Patriots] did, so give them credit.
What makes football so enjoyable is that full cheating is as impossible as fully fair play. Everything is a matter of degree, but at the end of the day, if you can’t push somebody over, or run past them, or block them, or tackle them, no amount of cheating is going to help. Ironically enough, the only member of the Patriots in the Hall of Fame is guard John Hannah, who was so dominant in his day that the team would run the same play behind him ten, fifteen times in a row. Everyone on the other side knew what was coming, but nobody could stop it.
Of course believing the Patriots are actually innocent requires believing first of all that the initial email to the league about Brady’s preference being common knowledge was entirely fallacious, and further, that a man who referred to himself as the deflator and who joked about needles and going to ESPN took the game balls into a bathroom for ninety seconds before the second biggest game of the year for some purpose other than deflating them. This is a lot to ask of a rational mind. And yet the science has consistently shown that the weather fully accounts for the lowered PSI levels, meaning that if the Patriots did cheat, they were not very good at it. For my own part, I’ve come to believe that McNally closed the door behind him, took out his needle, and promptly dropped it on the floor. He then spent ninety seconds looking for it, before giving up and taking the balls to the field intact.
This is the first installment of a new football column by Stephen Squibb. Read the second here.