Fans of professional sports would like to turn a blind eye to the reality that those within franchises – from ownership to general managers to coaching staffs to players – will, from time to time, engage in shady behavior in order to obtain advantages over opponents. This has, in the past, meant teams watering down turfs and infield surfaces to help their own game plans, and it has involved coaches and players stealing signs from opponents. Such actions are unethical, they break the rules of those particular sports, and they happen every year whether we want to admit it or not.
Former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson recently admitted to breaking a NFL rule to help Tampa Bay defeat the Oakland Raiders at Super Bowl XXXVII. According to a TampaBay.com report from Rick Stroud, Johnson “made sure the balls were scuffed and ready” so that the quarterback would have better grips on those footballs during the Big Game. According to that Stroud piece, Johnson paid “seventy-five hundred (dollars)” to have footballs doctored to his liking. Tampa Bay cruised to an easy 48-21 victory over the Raiders, the first and, to date, only time that the Bucs have ever won a Super Bowl.
The “Deflate-Gate” scandal surrounding the New England Patriots as they prepare to play against the Seattle Seahawks at Super Bowl XLIX has far more questions than answers at this stage of the process. What is known is that the 12 footballs that the Patriots were set to use in the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts were deemed to be game-ready as it pertains to them being inflated between 12.5 pounds and 13.5 pounds per square inch and at a weight between 14 and 15 ounces by a referee. Those balls then seemingly never left the possession of the officiating crew before kickoff.
With the Patriots leading the Colts 14-0 in the second quarter, quarterback Tom Brady was on the verge of taking the New England offense into the red zone when Indianapolis linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a Brady pass at the one-yard line of the Colts. This is where the intrigue begins. Jackson, believing the ball that he grabbed felt under-inflated, informed an Indianapolis equipment man, and thus the wheels were set into motion for the “Deflate-Gate” debate to begin. One ball being a little flatter than normal wouldn’t be all that big of a deal. Perhaps, for example, the ball had been punctured during the course of play.
It no longer looks like that was the case. ESPN NFL insider Chris Mortensen dropped a bombshell late on the night of January 20 when he reported that 11 of the 12 footballs used by the Patriots during the AFC Championship Game were “inflated significantly below the NFL’s requirements.” What makes that finding even more astonishing is the knowledge that footballs are supposed to be re-examined during the halftime break of a game. The allegations put out there by some are that either head referee Walt Anderson did not check the balls properly, or that the Patriots somehow, with video cameras and cell phone cameras all over the place, got away with cheating while on the sideline.
Why would the Patriots want to play with under-inflated footballs in the first place? The idea, one put out there by Brady in an interview from 2011, is that a deflated ball is easier to grip. This is especially true on rainy evenings, as was the case at Gillette Stadium last Sunday evening. Not everybody agrees that the Patriots, if guilty, actually cheated in the AFC Championship Game. Former Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander said, during an interview on Cleveland sports talk radio 92.3 The Fan that aired on the morning of January 21, that “a deflated ball will have almost no impact on the game.” Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers has said that he prefers to throw footballs that are over-inflated.
Whatever the state of the footballs, the Colts had little chance against the Patriots. The amount of air inside of the balls would have played no difference in New England running back LeGarrette Blount rushing for an average of 4.9 yards per carry and 148 total yards, including touchdown runs from one and two yards out. Blount could have hit what is a shaky Indianapolis run defense for 200 yards easily had the matter been pressed, but the game was well out of reach by the time that the Patriots had any interest in running up the score or embarrassing their opponents.
Cheating is still cheating, and that is especially true as it pertains to the regime running the Patriots today.
It is possible that the public will never fully be made aware of what happened regarding the 2007 “Spygate” scandal involving the Patriots, head coach Bill Belichick, and his staff. What is known is that Belichick was, when all was said and done, fined a league-maximum $500,000 following an investigation. The Patriots were also docked some cash and, even more importantly, a first-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Belichick and company have a history of not just bending the rules, but being caught doing so. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has no choice but to throw the book at the Pats if they are found guilty of cheating against the Colts.
That said, everybody needs to pump the breaks before going overboard. For example, the Patriots are not being yanked from Super Bowl XLIX. Tickets have been purchased, hotel rooms have been booked, and nobody should want to see the Colts get dominated by the Seahawks in that contest. What’s done is done there. Just as silly as is the Pats being removed from the Super Bowl is the idea that the Colts should be awarded a future New England draft pick. Indianapolis does not deserve to get an extra advantage over the rest of the AFC South and over the rest of the league because of what happened in the AFC Championship Game.
More realistic and fair punishments are the following: The NFL fines Belichick the league-maximum amount, strips the Patriots of at least a first-round pick AND suspends Belichick for the 2015 regular season. New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton was banned for a season for his involvement in the infamous “Bountygate” scandal, and Payton was, by all accounts, a first-time offender. Belichick and every other coaching staff and front office needs to receive a message that none of them are above the rules of the NFL, and that thinking otherwise will result in severe punishments being handed down.
Only if Belichick and the Patriots are, of course, guilty.
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