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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The bombast and grandiosity of NFL football have always put me off. Fans too often treat ballgames as if they were wars between rival tribes or nation states, symbolic struggles between good and evil. As somebody who watches probably 150 Major League Baseball games a year, I find the hype alternately exhausting and ridiculous.

So no, I don’t have even a fan’s stake in “Deflategate,” the highly publicized battle between the NFL front office and the New England Patriots over the allegation that the Patriots cheated their way to the Super Bowl by letting air out of game balls to make them easier to grip. Or something. It’s clear that pounds per square inch had little to do with the 45-7 beatdown the Patriots put on the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship Game

In baseball, only umpires handle game balls. Doctoring them with pine tar, sandpaper, or saliva is against the rules, but guys have pitched their way into the Hall of Fame doing it and fans mostly admire their gamesmanship. It’s clear that NFL rules pretty much encourage customizing footballs, just as it’s clear that slight differences in pressure mean nothing to anybody except the guy throwing them.

Which brings us to Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and what really interests me about “Deflategate” — the way it exemplifies the great Dionysian Cult of Celebrity Worship that governs so much of American public life. Figuratively speaking, we turn people into demigods only to envy and destroy them.

Writing in the Boston Globe, Neal Gabler thinks, “it speaks to a sea change in our perception of human nature. Whether it is Brady, or Hillary Clinton and her emails, or Bill and his Foundation, or Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, we reflexively now always assume the worst about people. No one gets the benefit of the doubt.”

I wouldn’t go that far, but Gabler’s examples are well chosen. It’s certainly true that once somebody like Brady (or Hillary Clinton) has been targeted, it’s almost impossible for them to get even-handed treatment in the scandal-mongering media.

“Deflategate” has been fueled by inaccurate, insider-driven reporting from the get go. As usual, Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler website has been all over it: “As with most of our consensus scandals,” he writes, “the scandal our press corps has dubbed ‘Deflategate’ began with some false information… At ESPN and at NBC Sports, major journalists attributed this false information to unnamed ‘NFL sources.’ Apparently, the bad information was being dispensed by people within the league.”

ESPN’s investigative reporter Chris Mortensen got the party started just before the Super Bowl:

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.

A veritable chorus of televised outrage began that has basically never let up. NBC Sports correctly reported what we now know from the league’s own Wells Report: that the real numbers were closer to one pound under the 12.5 psi (pounds per square inch) standard — which is pretty much what the physics of gases would predict of a ball inflated in a 70-degree locker room and exposed to mid-40s temperatures for a couple of hours.

However, hardly anybody outside Boston noticed. According to the Patriots organization, the NFL forbade them from releasing these facts. The league also sent the team a misleading letter claiming that a ball intercepted by a Colts linebacker measured 10.1 psi.

Wrong again.

The offending football was measured three times. Again via the Wells Report, the resulting numbers were 11.45 psi, 11.35 psi, and 11.75 psi.

So why are we still talking about this foolishness? Incredibly, because NFL investigator Ted Wells decided the referee must have been wrong about which of two gauges he’d used to measure the footballs. Seemingly because if the referee had been right, then there would have been zero evidence of tampering and nothing to investigate. All the rest is a poorly written novel.

Anyway, here’s veteran sportswriter Frank Deford on NPR, explaining the imagined motives of that bad novel’s villain:

Sure, deflating the balls must’ve helped the Patriots but maybe more it helped pretty Tom Brady, the Golden Boy, hang on to that immortality mode for an overtime…it was vanity as much as victory that drove Tom Brady…Oh, well, he still has his looks. I wonder if it’ll be just as difficult for him when his beauty starts to fade as it was back when he realized that his skills were beginning to deflate.

Any questions? For sheer, unadulterated bitchiness, I don’t believe the third runner-up in the Miss Alabama Pageant could top that.

So why would the NFL want to tear down one of its marquee stars? Beats me. The old saw probably says it best: “Never ascribe to conspiracy that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.”

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 Patriots game balls were underinflated according to NFL rules during the first half of the AFC Championship victory over the Colts. (Brad Horrigan/Hartford Courant/TNS)

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  • Clifford Terry

    In a way I agree with your points. They are entirely valid for this day and age in US culture. However, I think that to some degree the sound and fury stem from these athletes being presented as paragons for young people to emulate. This style thinking does go back a few years and I can remember when Pete Rose began to be troubled for betting, Alex Karras was troubled by betting, and other athletes committed other infractions. I do believe that some semblance of that kind of thinking applies even today, though less so than in the past.

  • pisces63

    Frankly, I thought the whole thing was stupid and still do. I never liked Brady and it has nothing to do with the game. I did not like Terry Bradshaw, either but that was because he was the Steelers’ QB. My husband and son were fans. I am a Browns fan. We had great fun in our rivalries. Good natured fun. Same with our youngest daughter. SHE is a Yankees fan. Me, my Tribe. They nit pick because they do not have a life. In today’s bunch, it is about beating someone literally. Ours was the figurative beat down. We won 45-7. Period. Manny Ramirez knocked a HR off Any Pettis. That type deal. Not dumb crap like under inflated footballs. REALLY!! Pete Rose deserves to be in the Hall of Fame.

    • RobertCHastings

      I strongly agree with you regarding Pete Rose. His accomplishments had nothing to do with drug use, and merit no asterisk. As a less than stellar athlete, he made up for his lack of athleticism with his indomitable spirit and hustle, a VALUABLE lesson for ALL those youngsters who admired and emulated him.

  • Rich

    The most damning evidence was the texts from the NE support staff. The only logical explanation that can be taken from those texts is that Brady was aware of and sanctioned a lower PSI.

    Is this a big deal? Each person can come to their own conclusion on that issue.

    • RusInMass

      No. The handlers were aware of his preference – at the low end – and of ref’s who were screwing that up. “Generally aware” was the weaseliest of weasel terms.

  • Angel Perea

    THE INCONVENIENT TRUTH: Brady got caught pushing the rules to keep gaining an edge. So instead of admitting it, he was too embarrassed to take responsibility and lied to cover up! Now he has cost the jobs to two men that had no reason to cheat but deflated balls as Brady liked and directed. Yes, the whole incident is stupid, but it is Brady that intended to get that edge over his competition which part of the Patriot’s game plan. Also, If Mr. “detail man” Belchick,did not know, it was because he did not want to know to have deny-ability. After all, nothing ever happens in the Patriot locker room without his knowledge! Base upon the past record, all coaches that have worked their know that is how it done! So Mr. Goody too shoes White Boy show a little class and accept your punishment as well as apologized to get those two innocent men’s jobs back!

    • RusInMass

      No he didn’t “get caught” at anything. Wells made conjectures, inferences, and suppositions into a “case”. But the dry bones of his report do not support his conclusions. Goodell needs to show he can keep the Help in line. He’s so butch.

      • RobertCHastings

        Brady himself admitted he realized something was different about the balls he was using. As a highly-recruited player from his college career, to the idol of millions of young football players, he has tarnished HIS image by seemingly brushing off his cheating, and the tepid response of the NFL in their punishment of him and his team serves to further diminish the moral standing that league MAY at one time have possessed.

  • RusInMass

    For the first time in NFL history, football PSI was measured during the game. And the Pats balls were found under 12.5 (an arbitrary limit that probably merited all of 5 seconds thought before it went into the rule book). The rest – all of it – is the frenzy of petty, spoiled, very very very rich children.

    • Angel Perea

      Hey Mr. Ruslin, There are rules in Sports for a reason! It is not the games balls that ” 12.5 (an arbitrary limits,” Its about Brady’ s intent to use two staff employees go around the rules for his advantage, then lying (pleading ignorance) to try to cover his behind and refusing to providing his texts that could have proved his innocence or guilt! Some of these jerks think they are bigger than game, like Brady, Horung, Karis, Rodriguez, Bonds, McGuire, etc.

  • Daniel Jones

    Forget figurative speech; speaking frankly, we turn people into idols specifically to bask in the reflected glory and to be nearby with weapons in hand when the idol turns out to be human after all.