The New England Patriots And The Case Of The Deflated Balls
A new Patriots cheating scandal, or much ado about nothing?
Among the more bizarre allegations coming out of the wake of this week’s NFC and AFC Championship games was the allegation that the New England Patriots had used deflated balls during the course of the game, allegedly to make the balls easier to catch and to throw. The story originated with an Indianapolis television station, which apparently got the story from people on the Colts’ staff who had noticed that a ball that had been intercepted during the course of the game felt like it was less inflated than it should be. While the Patriots dismissed the allegations, the NFL had apparently already opened an investigation into the matter as early as Sunday evening. Now, reports indicate that as many as eleven of the twelve balls that New England was required to provide for its use during the game may have been under-inflated:
The NFL has found that 11 of the New England Patriots’ 12 game balls were inflated significantly below the NFL’s requirements, league sources involved and familiar with the investigation of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game told ESPN.
The investigation found the footballs were inflated 2 pounds per square inch below what’s required by NFL regulations during the Pats’ 45-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts, according to sources.
“We are not commenting at this time,” said Greg Aiello, the NFL’s senior vice president of communications.
League sources have confirmed that the footballs were properly inspected and approved by referee Walt Anderson 2 hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, before they were returned to each team.
ESPN Sports Radio 810 in Kansas City reported that the Patriots’ footballs were tested at the half, re-inflated at that time when they were found to be low, then put back in play for the second half and then tested again after the game. All of the balls the Colts used met standards, according to the report.
Under NFL rules, no alteration of the footballs is allowed once they are approved.
Troy Vincent, the league’s senior executive vice president of football operations, told The Associated Press late Tuesday in response to this report that the “investigation is currently underway, and we’re still awaiting findings.” He told “Pro Football Talk with Mike Florio on NBC Sports Radio” earlier Tuesday that the NFL expected to wrap up its investigation in “two or three days.”
Sources told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Wednesday that the Colts had concerns about underinflated balls after their regular-season game against the visiting Patriots on Nov. 16.
During that game, Colts safety Mike Adams twice intercepted Tom Brady and gave the balls to the Colts’ equipment manager to save — and both times there were concerns about the balls feeling underinflated, sources told Schefter
Those sources said the Colts raised concerns to the league, which was aware of the issue going into this weekend’s AFC title game.
Yet to be determined is what, if any, penalties may be imposed upon the Patriots. One source described the league as “disappointed … angry … distraught” after spending considerable time on the findings earlier Tuesday.
When this story was first reported, I was admittedly somewhat incredulous, although in no small part that was due to the fact that, like I suspect most people, I was unaware of how the NFL handled the delivery and custody of what would seem to be the most important part of the game. As it turns out, the NFL handles this seemingly important matter differently from other sports. In Major League Baseball, for example, the home team is responsible for providing the umpires with an adequate supply of baseballs for use during the course of the game, however Rule 3.01 of the Official Rules of Major League Baseball require the home team to provide the umpire with a sufficient quantity of balls for use during the course of the game, each of which are to be inspected by the umpires to ensure that they comply with the rules. Additionally, before a ball is used in play it must again be inspected by the head umpire to ensure that it has not been defaced or altered in a manner that could benefit either team. Rule 13 of the National Hockey League’s Rules require the home team to provide pucks; however, the rules require those pucks to be kept in a freezer prior to game time and under the sole control of one of the on-ice officials. Finally, the NBA’s rules are somewhat unclear but appear to say that league officials are responsible for providing balls and ensuring that they are adequately inflated. In the NFL, things are a bit different:
The Ball must be a “Wilson,” hand selected, bearing the signature of the Commissioner of the League, Roger Goodell.
The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind. It shall have the form of a prolate spheroid and the size and weight shall be: long axis, 11 to 11 1/4 inches; long circumference, 28 to 28 1/2 inches; short circumference, 21 to 21 1/4 inches;
weight, 14 to 15 ounces.
The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.
Each team will make 12 primary balls available for testing by the Referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game to meet League requirements. The home team will also make 12 backup balls available for testing in all stadiums. In addition, the visitors, at their discretion, may bring 12 backup balls to be tested by the Referee for games held in outdoor stadiums. For all games, eight new footballs, sealed in a special box and shipped by the manufacturer to the Referee, will be opened in the officials’ locker room two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game.These balls are to be specially marked by the Referee and used exclusively for the kicking game.
In the event a home team ball does not conform to specifications, or its supply is exhausted, the Referee shall secure a proper ball from the visitors and, failing that, use the best available ball. Any such circumstances must be reported to the Commissioner.
In case of rain or a wet, muddy, or slippery field, a playable ball shall be used at the request of the offensive team’s center. The Game Clock shall not stop for such action (unless undue delay occurs).
Note: It is the responsibility of the home team to furnish playable balls at all times by attendants from either side of the playing field.
Since each team is permitted to provide its own balls for its own use during the game, that means that the alleged advantage of under-inflated balls would not benefit the opposing team unless they happened to end up using one of the home teams balls instead of one that they brought for themselves. Additionally, it doesn’t appear that there is any kind of official custody of the balls by game or league officials after the pre-game inspection, which thus leaves open the possibility that they could be altered prior to the game but after they’ve been inspected. Even given that, though, NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt is skeptical about how the Patriots could have pulled this off:
Q.How would the Patriots get deflated balls into the game?
A. That’s the $64 question. The officials do a great job of being sure everything is up-to-date. With all the procedures they take, I find it hard to believe that someone could take two bags of 12 balls and deflate them. I don’t see where you could go with this large bag of balls. Do you lock yourself in a room? It’s not very feasible.
Anything is possible, but it is highly improbable. If you’re down on the sidelines and taking a ball out of the bag, which logistically you’d have to do, you could be seen.
Q.Could the balls have inadvertently lost air because of the cold weather?
A. Sometimes balls can have a bladder problem. I’m a collector, and I have a ball that hasn’t lost any air in five years. But I have another ball that has to be reflated. Those great ladies in Ada, Ohio [where Wilson produces game balls for the N.F.L.] do such a great job sewing the balls, but sometimes the bladder loses air and it’s beyond their control. But the officials are so good at what they do and are taught what they have to do, I find it hard to believe it could take place.
Given the size of the Patriots’ victory over the Colts, it seems unlikely that the allegedly deflated balls were the definitive factor in the outcome of the game. However, given previous allegations against the Patriots such as the infamous “Spy Gate” scandal and, more recently, complaints from the Ravens that the team had played fast and loose with the eligible/ineligible player rules, tend to add to perceptions about the Patriots under Bill Belicheck that are unlikely to go away regardless of what happens in the Super Bowl in two weeks. If the NFL does find that the team deliberately deflated balls, they are likely to take away draft picks from the team and possible impose a fine. More broadly, though, if the allegations are true then it shows that the Patriots didn’t learn their lesson from the cheating scandal five years ago, and that something ought to be done about that. What it is, and whether there’s even authority for the NFL to do more than a fine and denial of draft picks, is the big question. If there is no such authority, then the league would seem to need to do something about that because this is the kind of issue that goes to the very integrity of the game itself.