Only A Game?: Why Deflategate Doesn’t Matter

I had a band director in high school who liked to say that music was great when it effectively built up and released tension. If so, the Super Bowl game played between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks on February 1st was something akin to the 1812 Overture. Between two of the game’s final plays—Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler’s interception and the insane, horizontal juggling catch Seahawks receiver Jermaine Kearse pulled off—there was enough athleticism, excitement, and ridiculous luck for an entire NFL season.

Which, it turns out, was necessary. This past season has been largely nightmarish—beyond the usual terrible injuries, annoying announcer patter, and increasingly disruptive officiating (soon, all plays will be reviewed, and football games will last eight hours) was the explosion of high-profile scandals that I’ve written about before at length. No one likes to find out that some of their favorite players abuse their wives or children, but even worse is the NFL repeatedly falling on its face when trying to address these cases. It seems that even though off-the-field violence has been a problem for years, the NFL and much of the public would much rather ignore it and go back to football.

As I said, though, I’ve written about all that before. So why rehash it?

I bring these scandals up again because I feel it’s necessary to remember them when we discuss that great Super Bowl game and its own deeply stupid attendant scandal, Deflategate (or, as some on the internet have more cleverly termed it, Ballghazi). For the uninformed, Deflategate refers to a cheating allegation leveled against the New England Patriots two weeks before the Super Bowl. It began with a leak of the NFL’s investigation into the Patriots’ allegedly under-inflated footballs in the playoff semifinal AFC Championship game. If the Patriots’ footballs were not inflated within the allowed PSI range while the footballs used by their opponents, the Indianapolis Colts, were legal, it would have given the Patriots an unfair advantage on offense, as under-inflated footballs are easier to grip and throw.

From there, the scandal expanded dramatically (I promise that any air-pressure related puns are unintentional). All of a sudden, media figures and fans began to label the Patriots as undeserving of a Super Bowl appearance, calling them long-time cheaters. Even the idea of barring Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick from the Super Bowl was thrown around. Meanwhile, the NFL had made no official statements other than the confirmation that an investigation was ongoing.

While piling criticism onto my favorite team without any real evidence annoys me immensely as a fan, I can understand it. Someone who doesn’t actively root for the Patriots might begin to doubt their success when they get wind of all of these rumors, given the team’s run of success and their involvement in the Spygate scandal several years ago.

That does not, however, make this whole affair any less stupid than it is. Without any real hard evidence, U.S. sports media spent the week and a half leading up to the Super Bowl talking about rules for footballs and the physics of inflation. There were countless interviews with retired players and coaches, many of whom openly called the Patriots cheaters. Bill Belichick, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and owner Robert Kraft all gave press conferences claiming innocence. It was all the stupidity, hearsay, and pageantry of a presidential primary, but about balls instead of the future leader of the country.

For the record, I don’t believe that the Patriots cheated. I’m not convinced that inflated balls would have made a difference in the Colts game—a 45-7 stomping. They clearly didn’t make a difference in the Super Bowl (when they were kept under lock and key by the referees), and there are rumors flying that support the Patriots’ innocence, too. Given this, I’m inclined to believe Belichick, Brady, and Kraft.

Ballghazi is clearly stupid. But when you compare it to some of this year’s earlier abuse scandals, it becomes sad. It’s disappointing that so many of the media outlets covering the NFL are far more eager to endlessly run circles around a story about underinflated footballs than to investigate claims of abuse by prominent players. It’s frustrating that the NFL will take months to launch initial investigations of abuse claims but will immediately hire an outside investigator to look into air pressure. It’s depressing that when investigations into punishment for abuse cases show that the NFL conflicts itself and is grossly negligent, people let it go, but when rumors of cheating involving something as esoteric as the rules for pre-game football handling pop up, people seize onto it long after it becomes irrelevant.

I’m glad, though, that this season ended with a game like this last Super Bowl. Despite all the stupidity that came before it and the stupidity that continued after it, the game itself was still everything football aspires to be. It was dramatic, beautiful, and intense. It makes me sad that it’s the off-season now, when all the toxic cultural byproducts of football flourish without the game itself to redeem them. I want to fast-forward to next September, when we’ll get to start all over again.

Image by frankieleon (Flickr via Creative Commons).

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