The league came down far too hard on one of its biggest stars without any definitive proof. (USA TODAY Images)
On July 4, 1983, Kansas City Royals’ third baseman George Brett was ejected from a game in which he hit a home run, because the umpire determined, at the behest of New York Yankee manager Billy Martin, that Brett had applied pine tar too high up the bat, in violation of rule 1.10(b), which says that it may be on the first 18 inches of the bat, but no higher. When Tim McClelland threw Brett out of the game, he exploded out of the dugout in a fiery rage, which became legendary in the annals of the sport.
The questions that emerged from that incident typically looked like these:
- What rule did Brett break, and why was that rule even in place?
- Did breaking the rule make Brett a “cheater”?
- What should the punishment have been?
WFAN talk radio host Mike Francesa has argued that rules are there for a reason, and to break the rules constitutes trying to gain a competitive advantage. The impression people like Francesca give is that every rule has specific purpose that is germane to the competitive spirit of the game. But the pine tar rule defies this sort of thinking. Peter Gammons, a hall-of-fame baseball journalist, attributes the origin of the pine tar rule to former Washington Senators (and later, Minnesota Twins) owner Calvin Griffith. Many players used to use (and many still do, in fact) pine tar on the bat to improve grip and to act as a preservative on the wood of the bat. But in the early days of baseball, there were only a small number of baseballs used in any given game. Every time a baseball came into contact with a bat coated with pine tar, it discolored the baseball and eventually made it too difficult to see and use. The higher up the bat the coating was, the more likely the ball would come into contact with the pine tar. Thus, teams had to use more baseballs in a given game if pine tar was allowed to be used higher up the bat.
Griffith was one of the few owners whose sole business interest was the baseball club, and he watched his money spent by the organization very carefully. He avoided paying competitive salaries, and had a disdain for modern marketing techniques. It is therefore no surprise that he did not like spending extra money on baseballs simply because they were getting covered by pine tar. Therefore, as the story goes, he convinced baseball to enact the rule in 1955 that limited pine tar to the first 18 inches of the bat.
George Brett was ejected from a baseball game in 1983 because Calvin Griffith was a stingy owner.
Brett’s violation had nothing whatsoever to do with the integrity of the game, or with trying to gain a competitive advantage, or with “cheating”. Yes, he broke a rule. But the rule existed for a silly reason. Eventually the American League overturned his ejection, the rest of the game between the Yankees and Royals had to be replayed from that point forward, and the rule was amended after the incident. The league realized the silliness of the incident and of the rule. Now, if a player has too much pine tar on the bat, the bat is removed, but the result of the play still stands, and the player remains in the game. There needs to be some sort of consistency in the equipment used (generally speaking, a range), but not every violation of an equipment rule represents a threat to the integrity of the game or a desire to gain a competitive advantage.
For example, consider the NFL rule requiring players to wear thigh pads, enacted in 2013. The rule was not put in place to ensure equality in competitiveness, but rather to protect the players. Players often do not like to wear thigh pads, because they feel restrictive, and players believe it makes them slower. Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin said, “I was convinced they slowed me down. And I am sure guys today will be sure of the same.” An unnamed veteran player told cbssports.com, “This rule is dumb, and now the game is going to slow down dramatically.” Any player not wearing thigh pads is not allowed to play until he gets his equipment up to code, and the NFL could even levy a fine against noncompliant players. The NFL has a rule regarding the equipment, and the rulebook attaches certain penalties to people not abiding by the rule. Breaking the rule does not necessarily mean a player is a “cheater” or is illegally trying to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
Some rules DO get to the heart of competitive play. For example, PED usage is illegal in all major sports because they give athletes that use them a significant competitive advantage over those that don’t. Rightly, leagues like the NFL hand down harsh penalties to players caught using PEDs. Such players are considered “cheaters” due to the nature of the rule violation.
So with that in the background, let us take a serious look at the “Deflate-gate” incident involving the New England Patriots. Amidst the cacophony of disparate voices that have turned this event into one of the biggest scandals in NFL history, we will attempt to wade through the issue in a thoughtful, clear-headed manner. No small task, this.
There are four primary questions that need to be asked. Within these three questions are many other questions, of course. Those four questions are as follows:
- Is illegally tampering with a football a serious offense – does it constitute “cheating”?
- Did anyone in the Patriots’ organization illegally tamper with the footballs?
- If so, were Tom Brady or Bill Belichick specifically involved in any way?
- If so, what penalty should Brady, Belichick, and the Patriots receive?
Is illegally tampering with a football a serious offense – does it constitute “cheating”?
Let’s begin by talking about the NFL rules regarding the football. Here is the relevant section from the NFL rule book, rule 2, titled, “The Ball”.
- 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.
First, notice the range of acceptability within the ball itself. Just as thigh pads can be of different sizes and weights, the football can be within certain parameters, but not every football needs to be the same. The smallest, lightest football within these parameters is 11 inches long, 28 inches in long circumference, 21 inches in short circumference, 14 ounces in weight, and 12.5 pounds per square inch of pressure. The largest, heaviest football is 11 ¼ inches long, 28 ½ inches in long circumference, 21 ¼ inches in short circumference, 15 ounces in weight, and 13.5 pounds per square inch of pressure. Each must be a Wilson brand – obviously a Nike ball would not represent a competitive advantage; here is a rule that’s all about marketing. Imagine if one were to use a Nike ball? Would such a player be considered a “cheater”?
These ball parameters were put in the rulebook 75 years ago. Nobody knows why they are what they are. They are slightly different from the college football, which can be, for example, as short as 10 ½ inches long, with a long circumference as small as 27 ¾ inches. So obviously it is quite possible to play football at a very high level with measurements that are outside the NFL regulations. In other words, there is nothing “magical” or “right” about the NFL regulations. If the NFL decided today to change the inflation level of the football from 12.5-13.5psi down to 11.5psi-12.5psi, it would not have any tangible impact on the game.
For most of the league’s history, the NFL has been in charge of the footballs. But in 2006, Tom Brady and Peyton Manning led a bit of a revolution, convincing the NFL to adopt some changes to how the footballs are handled. Since then, each team has been allowed to prepare the footballs to their own quarterback’s preferences. The degree to which each quarterback prepares his footballs is astounding. A November 23, 2013 New York Times article detailed Eli Manning’s incredible football preparation, which is months and months in the making. Each quarterback prefers the footballs a certain way, each to his own specifications. CBS’ Jim Nantz and Phil Simms, on the November 30, 2014 broadcast of the Patriots-Packers game in Green Bay, made a note that Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers likes his footballs on the high end of the inflation regulations. Here were Simms’ words, citing Rodgers’ comments to him:
“He (Rodgers) said something [that] was unique: ‘I like to push the limit to how much air we can put in the football, even go over what they allow you to do and see if the officials take air out of it.”
Later in the conversation, Simms said, “You know, the officials do check those footballs and sometimes maybe even get lucky and put an extra half pound of air in there to help Aaron Rodgers out.”
At the time Simms made those comments, nobody paid much attention, because the NFL was ok with each quarterback having the ball according to his own preferences. This was, in many ways, part of the NFL’s move towards more offense in the game. Partly to appease a rapidly growing segment of the NFL fan base that plays fantasy football, the NFL was hoping to make the game more entertaining. Rules regarding pass defense and hitting the quarterback (and receivers, for that matter) were instituted to increase offense and scoring. Allowing the quarterbacks to prepare the balls in a way that made them more comfortable to throw was part of this move. Thus, nobody thought twice when Rodgers’ comments were mentioned by Simms on the air.
In fact, nobody thought twice when Tom Brady himself, in November of 2011, commented on WEEI radio that teammate Rob Gronkowski’s vicious spikes deflated the footballs, but that he was ok with it. Brady said, “I love that, because I like the deflated ball. But I feel bad for that football, because he puts everything he can into those spikes.”
Aaron Rodgers prefers football pressure on the high end, and doesn’t mind if they are overinflated. In fact, sometimes the officials will end up approving footballs that are above the regulated psi. Tom Brady prefers football pressure on the low end, and doesn’t mind if they are underinflated. Until the 2015 AFC Championship Game, nobody thought twice about this. Not even the officials, apparently, as Simms pointed out that sometimes they would inflate the footballs above the regulation pressure.
That the game officials and the NFL itself have never cared much about this issue is evident from many different pieces of information. Consider the text exchanges between Jim McNally, the Patriots’ locker room attendant, and John Jastremski, an equipment assistant for the Patriots, as cited in the Wells report.
On October 16, the Patriots played the New York Jets (a 27-25 Patriots’ victory). The next day, the two men swapped texts, talking about the footballs in the Jets’ game and how they would prepare the balls for the following game. Apparently, Brady was complaining about the inflation of the footballs from that game, and gave them grief about it afterward. Jastremski told McNally, “He was right though…I checked some of the balls this morn…The refs f***** us…a few of them were at almost 16. They didn’t recheck them after they put air in them.”
This fits with what Simms pointed out. If Brady prefers the footballs at the low end of the spectrum, no wonder he was unhappy with footballs that were at 16 psi. That’s 2.5 psi above the legal limit, and 3.5 psi above what Brady prefers.
If the officials routinely put extra air into the footballs, why would they hand the Patriots footballs at 16 psi? Either they were being devious and crooked, and trying to cheat the Patriots (unlikely), or they were simply cavalier about the measurements, not worrying about the precise pressure of each football. It will not do to simply dismiss Jastremski’s texts as exaggerations, for these text messages form key evidence for Wells’ conclusion that these men were involved in illegally deflating footballs. If we dismiss this piece of evidence as being exaggeration, then we should also dismiss the rest of the texts as well. Wells treats these texts as truth, and as proof that the Patriots illegally deflated footballs, and therefore we should take Jastremski’s claim seriously.
There is more. In the Wells report, the officials measured the pressure of the footballs before the game, as was standard protocol. Walt Anderson recalls that the Patriots’ footballs measured at 12.5 while the Colts’ measured at 13.0 or 13.1. But Anderson did not write down the measurements. This is interesting, because before the game, the NFL was alerted to possible shenanigans by the Patriots, and yet did not take the necessary precautions to ensure that the footballs were indeed correct. The Wells report cited a note from the Colts’ equipment manager that was passed on to the NFL office by email by Indianapolis GM Ryan Grigson that said, “As far as the gameballs are concerned it is well known around the league that after the Patriots gameballs are checked by the officials and brought out for game usage the ballboys for the patriots will let out some air with a ball needle because their quarterback likes a smaller football so he can grip it better, it would be great if someone would be able to check the air in the game balls as the game goes on so that they don’t get an illegal advantage.”
However, Wells, in a May 12 conference call, said, “No one took the complaint that seriously. The complaint wasn’t supported by any evidence.”
Clearly. If the psi of footballs was germane to the game, and if the Patriots were rumored to be tampering with the footballs, how would anyone actually know unless the footballs were measured? And measurements mean nothing in this context if they are not recorded. In fact, NFL referees never record the psi of footballs. Why? Because they do not care that much about it. It has never been an issue worth getting worked up over in the entire history of the NFL, until now.