Why DeflateGate Says More About the NFL Than It Does About the Patriots

It's a pinprick of a scandal—but the league, as with Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson and concussions and pot-smoking, has no idea how to handle it.
Photographer: Jim Rogash/Getty Images

Is it OK if I admit to you that I find the DeflateGate (or the edgier “Ballghazi”) scandal a total nothingburger of a story?

This is not to say I do not understand why it has blown up. It features Bill Belichick, the Dark Sith Lord of the NFL, a man widely considered to be happy to sacrifice the eternal souls of those who love him most intimately if it meant an extra half-yard on a second-and-8 wideout hitch. It features Tom Brady, the golden-boy quarterback with the supermodel wife, million-dollar smile and a faint but undeniable hint of sulfur. And it’s the Patriots, once the plucky underdog upstarts of the 2002 Super Bowl, and Bono, and socialist player introductions, and now, thanks to the infamous Spygate, the symbol of avarice and win-at-all-costs greed. Bill Belichick and Tom Brady could have teamed together to solve world hunger, defeat ISIS, and get “Freaks and Geeks” back on the air, and people would still hate them both. Any time there’s anything remotely scandalous near the Patriots, people are going to pounce.

But that doesn’t mean it’s really much of a legitimate scandal. The referees officiating the game didn’t notice anything until the Colts pointed it out to them. The difference between a 12.5 psi inflated ball and a 10.5 one is so negligible as to be mostly meaningless, even in the rain. No one has found a single person claiming to have seen anyone intentionally deflating the balls. (It’s also possible the balls deflated on their own because of the weather.) The Patriots won the game 45-7, whipping the Colts both with and without the supposedly tainted balls. Belichick himself gave an unequivocal answer at a press conference today, saying not only that he hadn’t known anything about any of this until Monday, but also, “In my entire coaching career, I have never talked to any player or staff member about football air pressure.” Unless someone finds video of Tom Brady on the sidelines shivving a football with a big grin on his face—while holding a sign that says “I am purposely deflating these footballs to give my team an unfair advantage”—I’m not sure how much farther this story can actually go. Belichick has said it’s nothing; Brady has said it’s nothing; no one has any proof—or even any evidence—that the Patriots diddled with the balls; the game was a blowout; we’re talking about 2 psi of a piece of freaking cowhide. Calling this case circumstantial is being kind.

Which means, of course, the NFL very well might lay the hammer down on the Patriots anyway.

Much has been written about the tumultuous season the NFL has had, how it has been plagued by the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson scandals, how the league has dealt with more crisis than during any other year in its history. But that doesn’t tell us anything about this current situation. What tells us something is how they handled those crises.

The simplistic, wrong-headed criticism of the NFL during its woes this year was that it didn’t have its players under control, that by not instilling proper discipline by laying down onerous punishments, it was somehow condoning domestic violence and child abuse. But that’s not what got the NFL in this mess. What got them in this mess was its arbitrary, inconsistent disciplinary process. The issue with Ray Rice wasn’t initially that he had hit his wife: It was that the NFL had suspended him for only two games for it, half what a player received for smoking weed. That was where the outrage came from, particularly as more and more information, most of it visual, came out about the incident.

The problem was what came next: The NFL wildly zigging and zagging, an awkward, lumbering lurch from one policy to another. First Rice was suspended for four games; then it was the season; then Peterson was “indefinitely” suspended; then that was reversed, and then reinstated again. The issue was not that the NFL didn’t take domestic violence or child abuse seriously: It’s that it didn’t take anything seriously except for how it affected its bottom line. The league didn’t really start focusing on the Rice case until it realized how angry people were; it then overcorrected in response to public outcry, kicking him out of the league even though it technically could not do that. (Rice was reinstated by the end of the season thanks to appeals, not that any team wanted anything to do with him.) You saw this too with Roger Goodell’s press conference about the scandals, which was basically him playing dumb for 45 minutes late on a Friday afternoon and then waiting for the games to start again so everyone would forget about it. A month later, Goodell came out with “bold” new disciplinary legislation, though it was clear, once you looked closely at it, that it was the same “the NFL can do whatever it deems necessary, including writing new rules” policy that had always been in place.

In other words: The NFL has proven time and again that it does not care about the facts of a case, or any sort of historical consistency, or what is correct or just. It simply will do whatever it can to make sure the staggering waterfall of money it produces is not disrupted. It has turned their “policy review” into “waiting to see just how upset people are about something, and then acting accordingly.” The NFL is a massive corporation that uses terms like “ethics” and “dignity of the game” only as a way to sell itself. Like any other corporation, it doesn’t care unless you make it. If we’ve learned anything about the NFL this year, it’s that.

Which makes me wonder about this DeflateGate. Right now, it seems ridiculous that any major move would be made against the Patriots with this little evidence. (And little effect, even if there were a ton of evidence.) But how mad are you? Are you Ray Rice mad? Are you Adrian Peterson mad? Or are you just Concussion Mad? If you’re Concussion Mad, that’s not enough: The NFL has made it clear that you’re not nearly angry enough about its concussion policies to make them do anything about that. But if you’re Ray Rice mad? If you’re angry enough that you start getting sponsors to make threats—like it happened with Rice and Peterson—to the NFL? Now you’ve made a difference. Now you have the NFL’s attention.

That’s what I’ll be looking for the rest of this week and into Super Bowl week. Will this story blow over by the weekend, like I think it probably should? If so, it’ll all be fine, and we’ll all get back to hating the Patriots for the usual reasons. But if it doesn’t blow over? If you force the NFL’s hand? Well, then I think the league is capable of anything. Because this year has been proof that the NFL doesn’t care about anything—domestic violence, child abuse, cerebral trauma, facts, due process, none of it—as much as it cares about its public image. It doesn’t really matter what the facts of DeflateGate are, not to the NFL. It only matters how angry you are. So I ask again: How angry are you?

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