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NEW YORK TIMES
True Scandal of Deflategate Lies in the N.F.L.’s Behavior
By JOE NOCERA JAN. 22, 2016
Tom Brady with a game ball after throwing a touchdown pass in the Patriots’ 45-7 rout of the Colts in Foxborough, Mass., in last year’s A.F.C. title game. Credit Damon Winter/The New York Times
John Leonard is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who roots for the Philadelphia Eagles, listens to sports talk radio when he is exercising, and teaches a course called Measurement and Instrumentation. When the Deflategate story broke after last year’s A.F.C. championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, he found himself fixated on it, yearning to dig into it from a scientific point of view.
On the off chance you have spent the last year on Mars, Deflategate refers to the scandal that ensued after the Colts accused the Patriots of deflating their footballs to give quarterback Tom Brady an unfair edge — an accusation that the N.F.L. and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, ultimately determined was probably true.
“Of course, I thought of the Ideal Gas Law right away,” Leonard says, “but there was no data to test it.” Although the N.F.L. had measured the pounds per square inch (p.s.i.) of the Patriots’ footballs at halftime after the Colts complained — under the rules, game balls must be inflated to pressures ranging from 12.5 to 13.5 p.s.i. — it had not released any numbers.
Robert K. Kraft, the Patriots’ owner, left, and N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell on Nov. 15. They were once good friends. Credit Julie Jacobson/Associated Press
The Ideal Gas Law, in case you are wondering, sets out the expected behavior of gases under certain conditions, like changes in temperature or volume. For instance, gases contract when they are in cold air and expand when they are in warmer temperatures. “I’m always looking for real life examples for my students,” Leonard says. If he could get some data, Deflategate had great potential as a case study.
In May, the data arrived. The prominent lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr., who was hired to investigate Deflategate for the league, delivered a devastating indictment of the Patriots. The Wells report concluded that “it was more probable than not” that two members of the Patriots’ locker room staff had “participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls,” and that “it was more probable than not” that Brady was “at least generally aware” of the impropriety.
Although the evidence was circumstantial — based on ambiguous text messages; Brady’s discarding of a cellphone; and a trip to the bathroom by one of the staff members, who took the balls in with him — it was also buttressed by a lengthy scientific report prepared by Exponent, a consulting firm with dubious bona fides, having disputed the dangers of secondhand smoke and asbestos. Exponent was a hired gun, and its conclusions backed Wells’s narrative.
Brady liked his footballs at the lowest p.s.i. in the range — 12.5. The consultants concluded that the drop in the p.s.i. of the Patriots’ footballs — the average was 11.3 p.s.i. — could not be fully explained by the Ideal Gas Law; it was too steep. But the smaller drop in the p.s.i. of the Colts’ footballs could indeed be explained by the laws of physics.
Numbers in hand, Leonard went to work. He bought the same gauges the N.F.L. used to measure p.s.i. levels. He bought N.F.L.-quality footballs. He replicated the temperatures of the locker room, and the colder field. And so on. When he was done, he concluded that Exponent had made a series of basic errors. Leonard’s work showed the exact opposite of Exponent’s conclusions: The drop in the Patriots’ footballs’ p.s.i was consistent with the Ideal Gas Law; the smaller drop in pressure in the Colts’ balls was not. (Leonard surmises that because the Colts’ balls were tested after the Patriots’ balls, they had warmed up again.)
By early November, he had a PowerPoint presentation with more than 140 slides. By the end of the month, he had given two lectures about Deflategate, the second of which he had videotaped and posted on YouTube. A viewer who watched the lengthy lecture edited it down to a crisp 15 minutes; Leonard agreed to let him post the edited version.
The edited lecture went up on YouTube on Dec. 1 and has been viewed more than 17,000 times. It is utterly convincing. Leonard told me that if an M.I.T. undergraduate made the kinds of mistakes that Exponent made, “I would force them to repeat the experiment and correct the analysis.” Based on his study of the data, Leonard now says: “I am convinced that no deflation occurred and that the Patriots are innocent. It never happened.”
He is hardly the only scientist to take that position. As Dan Wetzel pointed out in a recent Yahoo Sports column, scientists at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, Boston College, Rockefeller University, the University of Illinois and Bowdoin College — and others — have all come to the same conclusion.
And yet, this overwhelming scientific consensus notwithstanding, here we are a year later, with Brady and his Patriots about to play yet again in an A.F.C. championship game — their 11th in the 22 years that Robert K. Kraft has owned the team — and nothing has changed. The other owners still seethe at what they perceive as cheating by the Patriots. The N.F.L., refusing to acknowledge the science, continues to pursue Brady in court, in an effort to enforce a four-game suspension that he sued to overturn. (Brady prevailed in the lower court.)
And then there’s Kraft. One of the shrewdest sports owners ever — he turned a floundering franchise into a property that Forbes values at a staggering $3.2 billion — Kraft has been publicly humiliated by his own league, forced to pay a $1 million fine and give up two draft choices. Although he no longer lashes out at the league the way he did in the early days of Deflategate — his style is to be a conciliator, not a slasher — he is said to feel betrayed. Not least by Goodell, with whom he had once been so close that people called him the “assistant commissioner,” according to ESPN the Magazine.
To put it another way, the consequences of something that scientists believe never happened have been enormous.
One reason people say Kraft feels betrayed, perhaps the main reason, is that Goodell owes him. He was a strong backer of Goodell to become N.F.L. commissioner. He advised Goodell at every turn, and lavishly praised him. As a member of the N.F.L.’s compensation committee, he was instrumental in pushing Goodell’s compensation from $2.5 million in 2007 to $44 million in 2012. He has been a key figure in every television rights deal and labor negotiation. During the Ray Rice domestic abuse debacle, Kraft was one of the few owners to publicly come to Goodell’s defense. He was — and remains — a powerful owner, who has used that power to buttress the N.F.L. commissioner. The two men also developed a close friendship.
But Kraft owed Goodell as well. The most important example was the Patriots’ 2007 Spygate scandal, in which the team was caught videotaping an opposing coach’s hand signals. Although the Patriots paid a $250,000 fine and forfeited a draft choice — and Coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 — Goodell ordered that the evidence the Patriots turned over to the league, including a handful of incriminating tapes, be immediately destroyed. Many of the other owners believed that the Patriots had done far worse than steal signals, and that Goodell’s order to destroy the evidence was a cover-up to help his friend Kraft. They were furious.
In truth, the other owners’ resentment of the Patriots went beyond Spygate. In a league built for parity, the Patriots have become the football version of the old Yankees. They are never rebuilding, and always contending. There was resentment over Kraft’s Svengali-like hold on Goodell. And there was jealousy over the Patriots’ success. Although Kraft runs perhaps the most stable franchise in the N.F.L. — who else has had the same coach for 16 years? — many owners were convinced that the team’s success could only be explained by cheating. With the dour, unlikable Belichick as the coach, it was easy enough to believe. After all, he had run a spying operation.
Deflategate was their revenge. Taken at face value, slightly deflated footballs hardly merit the kind of harsh punishment Goodell meted out. In 2012, the San Diego Chargers were caught using “grip enhancing” towels; a fine of $20,000 was levied, and that was only because an equipment manager was said to have ignored a referee’s instruction. (The fine was later overturned.)
And the underinflated balls — if they were underinflated — certainly didn’t affect the game. In the first half, using the supposedly underinflated footballs, Brady and the Patriots took a 17-7 lead. In the second half, with the balls reset at the legal 12.5 p.s.i., the Pats scored 28 consecutive points, making the final score, 45-7.
But that wasn’t the point. The other owners, feeling that the Patriots had been caught cheating a second time, wanted Goodell to crush them. Indeed, although the N.F.L. denies this, it was made clear to the commissioner that there would be repercussions for him if he went too easy on the Patriots. Once the Wells report was issued, with its faulty science and its circumstantial evidence, Goodell did what he had to do. He lowered the boom on his friend, adviser and protector, Kraft.
Why did Kraft pay the $1 million and give up the draft picks without a fight? What choice did he have? He’s not the kind of owner who likes to rock the boat; he’s the kind of owner who wants to do “what’s right for the league,” as he has often said publicly. Al Davis, the owner of the Oakland Raiders, who died in 2011, would no doubt have sued the league, but that’s not how Kraft operates.
It is also clear, though, that Kraft was trying to protect Brady, one of the greatest quarterbacks to play the game. Swallowing the punishment without complaint might have moved Goodell to lift Brady’s four-game suspension. When that didn’t happen, Kraft’s fury burst into public view. “I was wrong to put my faith in the league,” he said after the N.F.L. decided to pursue Brady in court.
(It’s worth noting that the court fight between Brady and the N.F.L. has nothing to do with whether Brady knew what was allegedly being done to the footballs. It’s about whether Goodell violated the collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union in suspending the Patriots quarterback. As Brady’s appeals brief notes, Goodell has had five disciplinary actions overturned since 2012. My guess is that the Brady case will make it six.)
Kraft, I hear, has returned to his role of being an N.F.L. conciliator and statesman. He is involved in negotiating the broadcast rights to the league’s Thursday night games. He is also on the relocation committee, and is said to have played a key role in the owners’ meeting last week when they decided to allow the Rams to move from St. Louis to Inglewood, Calif.
But there is enormous bitterness within the Patriots organization, and Kraft is believed to share that feeling. The Patriots even maintain a website called The Wells Report in Context, which picks apart the report’s findings in minute detail, and which would surely not exist without Kraft’s approval. The Patriots point to the now solid scientific consensus on Deflategate and question why the N.F.L. won’t back down, or apologize, or ... something. As for Kraft and Goodell, although they speak regularly, it is all business. Their friendship is basically over.
On Sunday, when the Patriots play the Broncos in Denver, the temperature is expected to be in the mid-40s, a little lower than the temperature in Foxborough, Mass., for last year’s A.F.C. championship game. There is likely to be some precipitation, just as there was last year, which will also affect the footballs.
At the start of the game, the Patriots’ footballs will be set at the lowest allowable p.s.i., just the way Brady likes them. At halftime, they will be lower, probably significantly lower.
After all, that’s what science predicts. And you can’t ignore the laws of science, unless, of course, you’re the N.F.L.