Rushing to Judge NFL’s Patriots Guilty

Exclusive: The hottest news in the U.S. this past week wasn’t President Obama’s State of the Union speech but did the New England Patriots deflate footballs to gain a competitive edge, a story that suffered from the same rush to judgment that has afflicted other aspects of U.S. journalism, writes Robert Parry.

By Robert Parry

Given how bad mainstream American journalism has become, I sometimes turn to ESPN for relief and generally find the sports network’s reporting based on statistics and observable facts to be superior to the rushes to judgment that have come to define U.S. political and foreign reporting.

But it seems the disease of sloppy and opinionated journalism has spread to ESPN, too, as demonstrated by the network’s unseemly rush to judgment over the so-called “Deflate-gate” scandal swirling around the New England Patriots’ 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game on Jan. 18.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

Immediately after the game, all anyone was talking about was whether the Patriots intentionally deflated the footballs used in the first half to gain an unfair competitive advantage, by taking the balls from a legal minimum 12.5 pounds per square inch (PSI), down about 2 PSI below the legal standard.

And, though this controversy is about football not about whether to go to war in some faraway country the scandal does touch on journalistic principles that should be applied everywhere, especially where people’s reputations are affected.

As a longtime investigative reporter, I have always found it important when addressing a suspicion of wrongdoing to consider possible innocent explanations before concluding that someone committed an offense. Otherwise, you become easily drawn into conspiracy theories, assuming guilt rather than assessing evidence.

However, as “Deflate-gate” jumped from the sports pages onto the news shows and news pages, what was lacking across the board was any skepticism regarding the Patriots’ assumed guilt. The principle of presumed innocence was jettisoned and the only question was who was more guilty, coach Bill Belichick or quarterback Tom Brady, and what the punishment should be.

It became common for commentators on ESPN as well as regular news shows and talk radio to call Brady a liar and Belichick a chronic cheater. Yet, those conclusions were reached in the absence of direct evidence that anyone working for the Patriots had actually deflated the footballs.

Obviously, if there were an equipment manager who confessed or photographic evidence of someone tampering with the footballs, that would have changed things. But so far at least that sort of evidence has been lacking.

Therefore, the proper journalistic approach should have been to test out the innocent explanations first. For instance, was it possible that the referees who checked the footballs before the game made a mistake or that their equipment was faulty?

If one assumes that the referees were diligent and that their equipment was properly calibrated, then is it possible that the game conditions heavy rain at about 50 degrees combined with the pre-game conditioning of the footballs and their rough handling during the first half could have resulted in a decline in internal air pressure?

Testing the Footballs

That was the testing that Belichick said the Patriots conducted in their internal investigation. Belichick told reporters on Saturday that the pre-game conditioning of the footballs “rubbing” them down to make them tackier and the weather conditions during the game could explain a 2 PSI drop. In other words, he was presenting an innocent explanation.

But Belichick, who noted that he was “not a scientist,” was ridiculed by nearly everyone who later appeared on ESPN. A week into the controversy, it seemed that a “group think” had taken hold, much like we’ve seen in the Washington press corps, jumping to conclusions about Iraq’s WMD and other foreign issues.

And, once the media “big boys” have committed to a position, they are loathe to reconsider. It’s easier to simply make fun of any alternative explanations. (On a more serious topic, we saw how the major newspapers destroyed journalist Gary Webb for reviving the Contra-cocaine scandal after the big papers had mistakenly dismissed it.)

Fitting with ESPN’s defensiveness, an article on Sunday was largely dismissive of Belichick’s explanation while burying at the bottom of the story this item from a Pittsburgh-based sports science organization which essentially replicated the Patriots’ experiment:

“HeadSmart Labs in Pittsburgh conducted a study that indicated the pressure in the footballs used in the AFC Championship Game could have dropped 1.95 PSI from weather and field conditions alone.

“HeadSmart said it tested 12 new footballs that were inflated to 12.5 PSI in a 75 degree room to imitate the indoor conditions where the referees would have tested the footballs 2 hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. The footballs were then moved to a 50-degree environment to simulate the temperatures that were experienced throughout the game and were dampened to replicate the rainy conditions.

“‘Out of the 12 footballs we tested, we found that on average, footballs dropped 1.8 PSI when being exposed to dropping temperatures and wet conditions,’ the lab’s report states.”

In other words, an independent organization that specializes in the science of athletic equipment essentially confirmed what Belichick had said. And there is the additional loss of PSI that one might expect from 300-pound players landing on the footballs.

Of course, one still must acknowledge that it may turn out that the Patriots are indeed guilty as charged by ESPN’s and other commentators. A witness may turn up who was involved in tampering with the footballs or some photographic evidence may appear revealing an equipment manager deflating the footballs.

But journalists should hold back from accusing people of wrongdoing until after the innocent possibilities have been swatted aside or until there is real evidence. This is a lesson that should apply whether the issue is sports, politics or world affairs.

I suppose that I should add that I grew up in Massachusetts and was initially a Cleveland Browns fan (in the days of Jim Brown and Bobby Mitchell), but I began following the Boston Patriots after the American Football League opened in 1960.

Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his latest book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com). You also can order Robert Parry’s trilogy on the Bush Family and its connections to various right-wing operatives for only $34. The trilogy includes America’s Stolen Narrative. For details on this offer, click here.

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11 comments for “Rushing to Judge NFL’s Patriots Guilty

  1. Scott Hyde
    January 29, 2015 at 08:05

    Great article thank you.
    However, you’re missing one very important point. The real question is, if in fact someone from the Patriots actually deflated the balls a little before they left the locker room, then what would they have measured halftime outside due to different atmospheric and temperature conditions.

    IF someone actually took 1-2 psi out of the footballs earlier inside, then by halftime they had to be down another 1-2 to psi. Science doesn’t lie, PV = nRT, if there is a change in temperature there MUST be also a change in pressure. Therefore, then ALL of the footballs used by the Patriots would have measured somewhere around 9 or 10 psi at halftime when it was dropping to 45-47 degress and raining. Conclusion: it is not possible for someone to have taken any air out of the footballs prior to the game…

  2. David Markson
    January 27, 2015 at 21:12

    I would like to underline the comment Zachary Smith made in passing. The Colts’ balls did not deflate under identical weather conditions. The solution is simple. There’s a official ball. It doesn’t need special “conditioning” by anyone. If conditioning is need it should be part of the manufacturing process. The League should supply all the balls and distribute them randomly. Can you imagine a basketball game where each team had its own ball?
    If it were just a game, it would be silly to even consider of this. But it’s a multi-billion dollar industry that has been granted special status and exemptions from anti-trust laws by the Government. It need to be held to a very high standard.
    In addition, when you consider the huge amount of betting that takes place – both legal and illegal – the temptation for cheating is enormous. Additional safeguards are essential.

  3. Bobby C
    January 27, 2015 at 13:07

    This highlights a problem within the NFL itself. A problem that can be easily remedied. The teams should not be blamed for exploiting poorly written, or unenforced, rules.

    Each ball should be approved before the game by an NFL official. Then the balls should be given back to the teams for “conditioning”. Before a ball is put into play, the pressure can be quickly and easily checked on the sidelines, preferably when it is convenient and does hinder the flow of the game.

  4. Zachary Smith
    January 26, 2015 at 17:18

    This was a very painful essay for me to read, for I’ve become accustomed to exquisitely researched and reasoned output by Mr. Robert Parry. In my personal opinion, this one was neither.

    I’m not a lawyer, but according to my google lookup the “principle of presumed innocence” is a legal construct used where a law has possibly been broken. In other words, a criminal offense tried in a court of law.

    The “deflategate” uproar is – so far as I know – none of that. The issue involves a 1.5 billion dollar football team thumbing its nose at the rules of a larger organization (NFL) which supposedly administers a gang of 32 such teams – each of which is nearly as valuable as the Patriot team.

    Much of the uproar is on account of a feeling of betrayal by the tens of millions of loony fans who have made professional football an integral part of their lives. They had made what seemed to be a reasonable assumption – that everybody played by the same rules.

    The Patriots have a record of bending the rules to beyond the breaking point. As some have said, it’s a hell of a lot easier to lose a reputation than it is to regain it. So they were willingly playing with fire whenever it was they started diddling with the air pressure of their footballs.

    That event was during or after 2006 when a group of elite quarterbacks successfully lobbied to change the rules for who supplied the game footballs. And what happened after that? For one thing, the fumble rate of the New England Patriots took a dive. They became beyond-belief fantastic in maintaining control of their footballs during the violent action on the field. Presumably every team aims to avoid fumbles, but the Patriots took this to the “impossible” level.

    http://www.slate.com/articles/sports/sports_nut/2015/01/ballghazi_the_new_england_patriots_lose_an_insanely_low_number_of_fumbles.html

    From personal experience, I’ve found that holding on to a large object is related to how good a grip I have on it. I’m going to assume that I would “fumble” a softball a lot more than I would a similarly sized nerf ball. I’m going to also assume that the New England Patriots have been underinflating their footballs for such a long time that it has become standard operating procedure.

    That was the testing that Belichick said the Patriots conducted in their internal investigation. Belichick told reporters on Saturday that the pre-game conditioning of the footballs – “rubbing” them down to make them tackier – and the weather conditions during the game could explain a 2 PSI drop. In other words, he was presenting an innocent explanation.

    Yes, that’s an innocent explanation. It’s also pure horse shit. Would Mr. Parry have bought into a Belichick explanation that the air pressure in the Patriot game balls was altered by the Football Fairy? Those “weather conditions during the game” were in action against the Colt footballs too, and for some odd reason they didn’t lose air pressure.

    My first thought was that some employee deflated the balls. I could imagine a specially made inflation needle with a precisely drilled hole used on each ball for a specified period. Insert for X seconds, remove, repeat. A three minute pause in the trip from the ball storage room to the field ought to do the trick.

    More recent explanations make more sense than mine because they’re easier and leave no tracks at all. Inflate the footballs to the minimum level in sauna-like conditions. The combination of hot air and water vapor will quickly cool to produce the desired deflation levels, and without any hanky-panky for anybody’s (home team security, tens of thousands of fans) video cameras to detect.

    Perhaps the simplest one of all is that two sets of footballs are prepared. One for inspection (if any) and one for use on the field. Some very basic magician tricks would permit switching the sets.

    I’m not a football fan at any level. If the Super Bowl was across the street and free, I wouldn’t go. But that being said, I’m as offended as the football ‘nuts about this affair, for I don’t care a bit about crooks and cheaters. IMO all the fanatical football fans have plenty of good reasons to get on their high horses about this.

    • sanford
      January 28, 2015 at 00:43

      Granted this is not a legal case, but it doesn’t mean that the writers or the NFL shouldn’t presume the Patriots innocent. It has been pointed out about the Colts not having deflated footballs. It should be pointed out that Brady performed better with corrected footballs in the 2nd half than he did the 1st. As for cheating every team tries to get an edge. I read an article today that the great Sammy Baugh had his footballs under inflated. The same rules that are in affect today where the rules when Baugh played. As for the fumbles here is an article about that. It is pretty involved. A sports talk guy was going to talk about it and it was too involved for him. To make a long story short the fact that the Pats did not fumble at home is over rated.

      • Zachary Smith
        January 28, 2015 at 15:23

        To make a long story short the fact that the Pats did not fumble at home is over rated.

        My original link was 1/23, so here is a 1/27 story with quite a bit more information.

        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/warren-sharp/stats-show-the-new-englan_b_6555802.html

        The author did supply a link to his database for the math types.

        My assumption the Patriots have been cheating with the deflation for years seems to be justified.

        BTW, I’ll agree that the NFL has been worthless in letting them get away with it. Why people are interested in watching two gangs of large men beating up on each other continues to be a mystery to me.

        But by the same token, why American Sniper is a runaway hit is yet another puzzle. As with the Super Bowl, I will never view that show either.

        • Matt
          January 28, 2015 at 21:19

          Unfortunately your assumption is not justified. Mainly because

          A) the link you provided has been shown to use horribly misleading and outright manipulated statistics. Here’s a better link that’s more informed and more accurately uses the statistical information available:
          http://regressing.deadspin.com/why-those-statistics-about-the-patriots-fumbles-are-mos-1681805710

          and

          B) you literally started your argument for their guilt by saying “they did it”

          Not to mention the “horse shit explanation” you discount with no backing has been proven feasible by scientists at both MIT and BU. But no, your suggestion that the ball boys did a magic trick is so much more realistic.

          Also, no one thinks you’re cool just because you’re against a popular thing. It’s okay, people have different interests.

    • January 28, 2015 at 13:30

      God, you’re stupid. Since you’re not a lawyer, then kindly shut the fuck up and stop trying to put this on a par with a legal case. You honestly didn’t read this article, did you? There is no evidence of any wrongdoing. An independent company specializing in the dynamics of sports equipment upheld Belichick’s explanation of how the psi could’ve dropped. And that STILL didn’t make an impression on you? You’re too stupid for a keyboard, or willfully ignorant, which is a special kind of stupidity.

      Again: No one bothered to check the Colt’s 12 footballs, did they? No, they did not. And do you think reinflating the balls 2.5 psi would’ve made a lick of difference in a 45-7 blowout? You ignoramuses just can’t stand the idea that the Patriots are the best team in the history of the NFL and have beaten, often badly, every teams it has faced over the years. And it’s risible, to say the least, that a team of the caliber of the New England Patriots and a coach of such stature as Belichick is would resort to cheap little tricks to gain and unfair advantage. So please shut the fuck up until you’ve weighed all the facts.

      • T-Rex
        February 1, 2015 at 12:55

        Gee — thanks for that intellectual comment to “shut the fuck up”… was that a tip you picked-up at the Harvard Speech and Parliamentary Debate Society, or did you make up that brilliant riposte on your own? Maybe you’d better get a couple of Prozac from the day-nurse to calm yourself down…

    • Ethan
      January 29, 2015 at 12:31

      Presuming innocence until proven guilty is not just a legal requiremnt in the court of law but also a concept of fairness in a modern society. Your suggestion that this so-called deflategate does not qualify exemplifies that this whole thing is a witch hunt carried out by fanatics.

      Further, Mr. Belichick did not just offer an explanation that the deflated football was a byproduct nature coupled with his team’s method of preparation of the football, he also offered a verifiable and testable process and invited the league to go through the same process to prove his claim.

      What Mr. Belichick did was a bold move. All the league and those who doubt the Patriots have to do is go through the same process. If the result disagrees with what Belichick claims, then you can conclude whatever you want. But given that Mr. Belichick offered this challenge, and all you folks could do is avoid verifying it and keep accusing without proofs.

      And that is pathetic.

  5. January 26, 2015 at 15:21

    Stop making sense. :) something the NY Times and every so called sports “reporter” have not done on the MOST TRIVIAL event ever. Really well done without question.

Comments are closed.