He's got a grip.

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Patriots' Deflategate Isn't Really Cheating

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
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Deflategate is real, and depending on your capacity for schadenfreude, it's spectacular.

ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported late last night that the National Football League determined that 11 of the 12 balls used by the New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts were significantly under-inflated, violating league regulations. Lots of questions remain: How did this happen? Is it cheating? Where do we go from here?

Of course, this being the off-week before Super Bowl week, reasonable attempts to answer those questions are sure to be drowned out by the much louder, less-informed voices calling for the Patriots' heads. ESPN's Michael Wilbon demanded that the league rescind the Patriots' Super Bowl berth even before the story was confirmed. An NFL source told Mortensen the league is "disappointed ... angry ... distraught" over the findings. Patriot-haters are giddy to point out that this isn't the first time New England has subverted the rules: "First it was Spygate. Now it's Deflategate."

Because this is the Patriots -- a team with an unlikeable coach, a quarterback with a "punchable face" and, most insufferably, three Super Bowl rings -- it's all too easy to delight in the idea that they are just a group of dirty cheaters, and we should throw the book at them. And because this is the NFL -- a league perpetually embroiled in scandal that likes to cherry-pick when to come down hard on offenders just to demonstrate its own power (just ask the New Orleans Saints) -- it's actually possible that we could see that happen.

But pause the outrage machine for a moment and you might start to get some real answers. It's too soon to tell exactly what, if any, discipline the NFL will come down with, so let's go back to a more basic question: Is this cheating? It seems rather obvious that tampering with game balls is an unsavory practice designed to give a team an unfair advantage. Deflated balls are easier to grip, say some players, but they only benefit one offense, because the other team uses its own balls when it has possession. Even some members of the Colts will tell you that they didn't lose 45-7 because of some doctored footballs.

Beyond questions of just how much of an impact deflated balls can have on the outcome of a game, we're confronted yet again with a fundamental question of competitive advantage: Is it cheating if everyone does it?

In 2013, an anonymous college football equipment manager told Yahoo Sports that ball tampering is pretty much standard practice. "It’s just common. It’s just the way it works. Everybody does it," he said. "You know you’re not supposed to do it, but nobody thinks it’s that big of a deal. I don’t think anybody looks at it as cheating." Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers weighed in as well, telling ESPN Milwaukee that he actually likes his footballs over-inflated because he finds them easier to grip, and that Green Bay will "push the limit" of what's allowed.

So if it really comes down to a quarterback's personal preference, and most people in football don't care all that much about the air pressure, what's the point of regulating to this level of minutiae? Standardization is important in sports, but from a pragmatic standpoint, we should question the validity of rules that are constantly ignored. 

If the NFL were truly concerned about maintaining the integrity of the game balls, it would omit teams from the pregame chain of custody altogether, an all-too-rational idea floated by former Colts general manager Bill Polian. But as Deadspin's Barry Petchesky points out, a 2006 rule championed by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning calls for both offenses to provide their own footballs. This is ostensibly so each quarterback can "break in" the balls, getting a feel for them and making sure they're to their liking before kickoff. 

It's fair to ask where the line should be drawn when it comes to regulating balls, and why, if it's really that important, the league doesn't just adopt a simple solution like Polian's. It's also fair to ask who really benefits from written rules that are superseded by unwritten ones. Spygate -- when the Patriots used sideline cameramen to film opponents' coaches giving defensive signals -- was a real scandal, an egregious instance of cheating that we all kind of forget about until something happens to revive discussion of the Patriots' integrity. Deflategate isn't on that level, and deserves to go out of our minds once Super Bowl week begins.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net