Exclusive: There’s a larger point to the NFL’s bizarre Deflategate story – how checks and balances have broken down in America letting powerful institutions do almost whatever they want to anyone even Tom Brady, reports Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
Yes, I know that many people hate Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. And many others couldn’t care less that the National Football League deemed Brady a cheater, a liar and a perjurer over the silly Deflategate scandal. But that is why it makes an excellent case study of how a powerful institution and its clever lawyers can make almost nothing into almost anything and get many people to go along.
Very similar techniques are used in more serious circumstances, such as the U.S. government and mainstream media demonizing some foreign leader in marching the American people in lockstep into another war.
So, the moral behind the story of Brady and the NFL is that the public should be alert whenever some powerful institution lodges an accusation against some figure who is widely disliked. The troubling truth is that often a mob-like excitement overwhelms any skepticism, leaving the few doubters of the establishment’s claims labeled “apologists” and most everyone else going along.
That was what happened in January 2015 when the Deflategate case began to unfold under the intense media spotlight of a Super Bowl. Brady and the Patriots headed into that game, Super Bowl 49, surrounded by amateur sleuthing into why the Patriots’ footballs in the AFC Championship game had tested at halftime below the league standard of 12.5 pounds per square inch or PSI.
In retrospect, we can put together what actually happened: how NFL officials didn’t know the physics of the Ideal Gas Law, how the media stampede gathered speed despite a dearth of evidence, and how rival NFL owners then seized on the “scandal” to hobble the Patriots and disgrace Brady. But many Americans, who rely on The New York Times or ESPN, may still believe the charges are credible.
An Inauspicious Beginning
The story began on Jan. 18, 2015, on a cold and rainy night in Foxborough, Massachusetts, where the Patriots were hosting the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game.
Before the game, NFL officials had set the Patriots footballs for use on their offensive plays at 12.5 PSI – Brady’s preferred number at the low end of the permissible level compared to the high end of 13.5 PSI. The Patriots’ AFC opponent, the Indianapolis Colts set their footballs at 13 PSI.
However, because the game was played in the cold and rain, the PSI naturally declined below the 12.5 PSI for the footballs of both teams. But when the Colts intercepted one of Brady’s passes in the first half and tested it, they noticed that it was below the legal limit and complained to the officials.
It turned out that no one involved in this initial phase understood the eighth-grade physics of the Ideal Gas Law, which was first promulgated in 1834 and measures how the PSI of an enclosed gas rises or falls depending on the outside temperature.
So, the NFL officials confiscated the Patriots’ other 11 footballs at halftime and brought them indoors for a hastily organized effort to test the PSI with two different gauges – one of which was fairly accurate while the other wasn’t – and found the footballs below the 12.5 PSI standard. The officials then added air to the Patriots’ footballs.
Sometime toward the end of the testing, the officials also checked the Colts’ footballs, botching one test and running out of time for eight of them but finding the other three were below the 12.5 PSI limit on the gauge that turned out to be accurate but above 12.5 PSI on the inaccurate gauge. No air was added to the Colts’ footballs.
The measurements were further compromised by the fact that the longer the footballs remained indoors in warmer temperatures the more they naturally re-inflated. The NFL officials later claimed not to remember the precise chronology or timing of the process, including whether they re-inflated the Patriots’ footballs before checking four of the Colts’ footballs.
After the game, which the Patriots won 45-7, the balls were checked again with the re-inflated Patriots’ footballs above the 12.5 PSI legal standard but the Colts’ footballs below 12.5 PSI. In other words, the Colts had played both halves of the game with under-inflated footballs, yet it was the Patriots who came under attack.
A Media Frenzy
After the game, some NFL personnel leaked the fact that the Patriots’ footballs had tested below the 12.5 PSI level. The leak also exaggerated how low the measurements were and falsely claimed that the Colts’ footballs had not fallen below 12.5 PSI.
That last inaccuracy proved crucial as the “scandal” exploded across the news media in the following days. Many well-meaning sports fans argued that Brady must be guilty of having organized a plot to illegally deflate the footballs because otherwise the Colts’ footballs would have shown a similar drop in PSI.
The reality is that the Colts’ footballs did experience a PSI drop although the extent was somewhat lessened by the timing of the halftime tests in which the Colts’ footballs were checked after having been in a warmer environment for nearly the entire halftime.
Over the following two weeks amid the Super Bowl media frenzy, there was a rush to judgment in both the sports press and in the mainstream media. Because of the widespread hatred of Brady and the Patriots – especially among fans of teams that had lost painful games to Brady’s team – there was a strong “confirmation bias,” that is, many people wanted to believe that Brady was guilty and thus any innocent action that could be spun in the direction of his guilt was seized upon.
But it was not just most NFL fans and the media that wanted the Deflategate story to be true. More significantly, so too did the owners of the other 31 NFL teams. They saw a chance to hobble the Patriots, who had become the dominant NFL team of the century winning four Super Bowls and appearing in six (now seven).
Yet, as much as fans may want to give their favorite team a boost, that is nothing compared to the intensity that exists in an owner’s box where not only pride but profits are at stake for owners if their teams can win lots of games and possibly a Super Bowl.
In view of that conflict of interest, you might have thought that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would have shielded the investigative process from the prejudice of the 31 other owners but he didn’t. He allowed the NFL Management Council, consisting of powerful rival owners, to weigh in, even letting them recommend how he should evaluate evidence. Goodell’s salary of around $35 million is controlled by the Management Council.
Making a Case
As the Deflategate hysteria gained momentum before and after Super Bowl 49, which the Patriots won with Brady declared the MVP, the NFL brought in a lawyer it had used before, Ted Wells, and hired a scientific firm, Exponent, to review the science.
Exponent was known as a hired-gun operation previously employed by the cigarette industry and other corporate clients to provide data that would help in legal cases.
In Deflategate, the firm at least knew the physics of the Ideal Gas Law but treated the sloppy halftime measurements as reliable – with the NFL offering a questionable chronology of how quickly and in what order the footballs were tested, to the Patriots’ disadvantage.
Ultimately, Exponent determined that all or virtually all of the PSI decline could be attributable to the cold and damp weather, but then imposed a secondary test of probability and concluded that it was unlikely that the weather was the only factor.
The point seemed argumentative, given the other variables surrounding the haphazard tests and the absence of real-life field measurements on football PSI, but it gave the NFL the opening it needed to build a case for Brady’s guilt.
In the meantime, Brady and two Patriot equipment employees who were responsible for the footballs testified that they had done nothing to the footballs after they left the control of the NFL officials. But attorney Wells seized on text messages that the two equipment employees had sent regarding Brady’s complaints about the over-inflation of footballs in an earlier game against the New York Jets.
Although the text messages would seem to have exonerated the pair – at least regarding any previous scheme to deflate footballs since neither referred to why the balls had been over-inflated if Brady had wanted them under-inflated – the comments were treated as a “smoking gun” supposedly proving the case.
Wells also noted that Jim McNally, the equipment employee who carried the footballs to the field, had stopped briefly in a bathroom. Wells speculated that McNally used the time not to urinate as McNally claimed but to hastily remove tiny amounts of air from the 12 footballs. (Wells also made the gotcha observation that McNally mentioned using a urinal when there was only a toilet in the room as if guys are precise about such matters.)
Relying on Wells’s report, the NFL imposed a four-game suspension on Brady, stripped the Patriots of two high draft choices and demanded the firing of the two equipment employees. The New York Times, ESPN and pretty much the entire U.S. news media treated the findings as gospel.
Despite all the hours of commentary and pages of ink devoted to Deflategate, there was almost no serious skepticism applied to Wells’s findings. To this day, the Times and ESPN have not subjected the report’s dubious science and prosecutorial conclusions to critical analysis.
Enter the Rival Owners
When Brady appealed his suspension, Goodell allowed the Management Council to weigh in, urging Goodell to treat the absence of the two equipment employees at the appeal hearing as evidence of Brady’s guilt (although the pair had testified repeatedly in other settings that there was no Deflategate conspiracy). Though Goodell said he rebuffed that recommendation, he clearly knew the verdict that the rival owners wanted – and he gave it to them.
In his report denying Brady’s appeal, Goodell also recognized that the only time when the deflation scheme could have worked was the AFC Championship game because it was the only time when McNally had taken the footballs to the field unattended.
But what Goodell ignored was the reason why that happened on that one occasion. It was because the earlier NFC championship game had gone into overtime, forcing a delay in the start of the AFC game. When the NFC game ended in sudden-death overtime, there was confusion among the officials for the AFC game and McNally said he took it upon himself to get the footballs down to the field, stopping briefly to relieve himself in the bathroom.
If the NFL was operating without a confirmation bias, this unlikely set of circumstances would have brought a finding of innocence for Brady and the Patriots.
After all, as unlikely as the whole story was – since a tiny reduction in PSI would have almost no benefit for Brady, indeed it would make the footballs slightly slower and thus easier to intercept – the fact that Goodell concluded that the only time the scheme could have been implemented was on the one Sunday when the NFC and AFC championship games are played back-to-back and that it would require the NFC game going into overtime and the sudden-death finish causing unexpected confusion among the officials makes the NFL’s conspiracy findings ludicrous.
Yet, the NFL cited the commissioner’s broad authority to discipline players and teams as the legal basis for suspending Brady and stripping the Patriots of valuable draft picks. The NFL also managed to get the case before a corporate-friendly federal court district in New York, which ultimately sided with the NFL without any serious testing of the quality of the evidence.
An Indelible Stain
Thus, Brady, whose storied career coming from the 199th pick in the draft to becoming arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, was left bearing the indelible black mark as a cheater, a liar and – because his last testimony was under oath – a perjurer.
To this day, The New York Times treats the Deflategate conspiracy theory as if it’s flat fact and ESPN, which has a lucrative relationship with the NFL, has never assigned any of its investigative units to dissect the actual evidence.
With only a few exceptions, such as Washington Post columnist Sally Jenkins, there has been no effort by the mainstream news media to act as a check on the NFL’s abuse of power. ESPN’s investigative show E-60 offered its only skepticism about the scientific evidence last year by running a cute feature about a seventh-grader conducting his own PSI experiment on footballs and finding Brady innocent.
So, the stain on Brady’s reputation remains with many rival fans who hate Brady finding his humiliation amusing. But Brady’s father has spoken up on his son’s behalf, voicing the lingering anger of those close to the 39-year-old quarterback.
“When it happens to your son, it’s a whole different context — or your daughter or any one of your kids,” Tom Brady Sr. told KRON-TV in San Francisco. “I think any parent kind of understands that. They’d rather take slings and arrows in the heart than have their kids take it.
“For what the league did to him and what Roger Goodell constantly lied about is beyond reprehensible as far as I’m concerned.”
With the Patriots back in the Super Bowl this year, Goodell was asked about the awkward scene that might occur if the Patriots were to win and he had to hand the Lombardi Trophy to Brady. Goodell brushed off the question by saying it would be an honor because of Brady’s illustrious career.
Tom Brady Sr. responded by saying, “It should be an honor, because somebody that has Roger Goodell’s ethics doesn’t belong on any stage that Tom Brady is on. … He went on a witch hunt and went in way over his head and had to lie his way out in numerous ways …
“And the reality is that Tommy never got suspended for deflating footballs. He got suspended because the court said that … Roger Goodell could do anything he wanted to do to any player for any reason whatsoever. That’s what happened. The NFL admitted they had no evidence on him.”
But the larger point may be that if a powerful American institution can do something like this to Tom Brady and encounter virtually no check or balance from the U.S. mainstream news media or the court system which one of us can expect better.
And if accountability has been lost in America – replaced by the raw power of those in authority to create their own reality – what can we expect when the next rush to judgment occurs on something even more important than a person’s reputation?
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).