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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Finally, a reason to pay attention to the Super Bowl, America’s most stultifying TV sporting event.

To this non-NFL fan, the uproar over the New England Patriots’ underinflated footballs is reminiscent of long ago pro-rasslin’ broadcasts from Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. I used to watch with my grandfather Connors, who’d get worked up and throw empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans at his black-and-white TV.

A retired railroad worker and brawler, the Old Man nevertheless found it believable that Dr. Jerry Graham could whack somebody upside the head with a folding chair and that guy could jump up executing flying dropkicks. Me, I cheered the villains—especially the Graham Brothers, bleached blondes who strutted, sneered and cheated their way to tag-team victory.

“Dr.” Jerry Graham claimed a PhD from Arizona State, which in pre-Google days could have been the dark side of the moon. An announcer once asked their manager, also handy with balsa-wood chairs, what kind of doctor?

“A tree surgeon,” he said.

To see the villains lose to Argentina Rocca, you had to buy tickets to non-televised extravaganzas at Madison Square Garden. Not going to happen. My father took us to see Willie Mays, but never a scripted carnival show.

So what’s this NFL brouhaha all about? I was amused to read a political columnist’s sneering reference to “evil genius Bill Belichick and pretty boy Tom Brady’s New England Patriots” in my local newspaper — a phrase revealing more about its author than his subjects.

An “evil” football coach?

People, it’s a game played with an inflated leather ball, as the sporting world now knows in excruciating detail.

And that’s about all they really know.

Otherwise, it’s the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys in the world’s best-publicized morality play.

See, New England played the first half of the AFC championship with footballs below the mandated 13.5 to 12.5 PSI range, supposedly making them easier to throw and catch. This gave them a tainted 17-7 lead. Forced by vigilant referees to use properly inflated balls, New England outscored the Baltimore Colts 28-0 in the second half.

So you can see what a crucial difference “about two pounds” of pressure — the most precise figure yet offered — made to the outcome.

But that’s not the point. It’s not the SEX, it’s the lying! said everybody back in 1998 when Bill Clinton… (insert juvenile word play here).

Anyway, that’s what the sterner sports pundits are saying now. It’s not the score; it’s the sanctity of the game.

See, because this is their big opportunity to star in America’s real national sport: the Dionysian rite of celebrity sacrifice, a 21st-century pagan ritual for the Internet age. We build them up so we can tear them down!

So is Golden Boy Tom Brady a cheater? The New Yorker’s Ian Crouch got it exactly right describing the quarterback’s first befuddled press conference—the one in the goofy wool cap.

“[T]he real purpose, the joy of the matter for the reporters, was to prod the handsome millionaire along though the familiar ritual of humiliation on national television. If he wasn’t going to provide Deflategate’s dramatic final act, then he could at least provide a little wish fulfillment, by making himself abject, or else ridiculous.”

Because nobody really loves a Golden Boy, do they? Anyway, this is basically how our national political press corps works. So why not ESPN and the rest?

Meanwhile, as a baseball fan, I’m flabbergasted by NFL regulations that clearly encourage “customizing” game balls. Under MLB rules, only umpires handle baseballs until they’re put into play. Otherwise, pitchers would work them over with power tools. Baseballs would come floating in loaded with bird shot, chicken feathers, whatever. Nobody would ever score.

As a former playground basketball player, I also know that cold temperatures make inflated balls go flat. In the NFL, each team brings its own. So if Tom Brady wanted footballs softer than 12.5 lbs, all he’d need to do on a chilly, rainy day would be follow the rules as written: Inflate them to the minimum in a warm room, and then take them outside.

The Boston Globe has reported about a Pittsburgh research lab that tested 12 “authentic NFL footballs” under game conditions. “[O]n average, footballs dropped 1.8 PSI when being exposed to dropping temperatures and wet conditions.”

Anyway, what has the NFL really found, asks a little-noticed, perhaps (pardon the expression) scandal-deflating article in Pro Football Talk. According to an anonymous source, “the football intercepted by Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was roughly two pounds under the 12.5 PSI minimum. The other 10 balls that reportedly were two pounds under may have been, as the source explained it, closer to one pound below 12.5 PSI.”

In short, much ado about damn near nothing.

But if you’re wondering, yeah, it definitely worked.

This year I’m watching the Super Bowl.

Photo: New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady speaks to the media at a press conference at Gillette Stadium on Thursday. Jan. 22, 2015. The press conference centered around the fact that 11 of 12 Patriot game balls were under-inflated according to NFL rules during the first half of Sunday’s AFC Championship victory over the Indianapolis Colts. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/TNS)

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