I've waited a few days to weigh in on the deflate-gate controversy. After all, we've had a riveting game seven of an NHL playoff series, four NBA playoff series that stand at 3 - 2, a thrilling comeback and playoff victory by Ricky Fowler in golf's premier non-major event and the upcoming Preakness Stakes, where American Pharoah will start as the only horse remaining with a chance at the elusive Triple Crown. So forgive me if I haven't been consumed, as has much of the sports talk radio world has been, with a scandal that is short on facts and long on conjecture. I'm not so sure the timing of the report and the controversial consequences to its top franchise wasn't intended to keep the league in the news during just about the only month where the NFL doesn't tend to create a lot of publicity.
The old saying is that there is no such thing as bad publicity, and in this case it might still be true. Just think about the timing of the release of the report and the sanctions against the Patriots. They didn't want this thing detracting from the Super Bowl or its aftermath, especially when the Patriots ended up winning. The NFL combine, which to me is about as important or exciting as watching paint dry, certainly had to go off without other distractions. And, well, the other paint drying event, the NFL Draft needed to be all about, well, picking players, most of whom will never play a down in the league. Oh, and let's not forget that there was a big fight, or more like a "Dancing with the Boxers" episode, that could have relegated the Wells Report to the third blog on SI.com or after the first commercial break on Sports Center, not to mention below the fold in the hundred or so newspapers that are still published in this country, but for the most part go unread.
Now that I've gotten that out of the way, I'll give my views on deflate-gate. First, the Patriots are no strangers to stretching and even breaking the rules. They filmed other teams' practices in what later became known as spy-gate. They gave a lot of lame excuses and were given what amounted to a slap on the wrist. Now they've been accused of taking air out of game balls after they had been inspected by officials, and in the AFC Championship no less. How bad is the offense and what advantage did they gain? Well, since there is a rule dictating the range of inflation for the balls, then the league must have determined at some point that there was one to be gained by going outside the specified numbers. So if the balls were in fact under inflated, and the Patriots intentionally made them that way, then they broke the rule. End of story, right?
The problem is in determining what really happened and who was responsible. The league is convinced that QB Tom Brady conspired with a couple of equipment managers to perpetrate the act, thus the four game suspension for Brady. What's interesting is that despite maintaining their innocence, the team suspended the equipment guys indefinitely without pay, a pretty harsh penalty for a couple of low paid employees who were involved in something the team won't admit happened. My guess is it could have gone down something like this:
Tom Brady, in an attempt to find the right game ball setup for himself, asks for a variety of balls to choose from. He happens upon one that he likes and tells the equipment team to prepare them like that until further notice. Well, it could be that he wasn't aware that the balls he really liked were actually below league inflation standards, but that the employees preparing the balls probably did, since they would have to measure the inflation and make sure it was the same for every ball. This would explain how Brady, while technically guilty of instructing them to underinflate the balls, actually had a reasonable assumption that they were within league standards. Was the team guilty of breaking the rules? Absolutely. Do they deserve a $1 million fine and loss of draft choices? Probably not. Should Tom Brady get a four game suspension if they don't have hard evidence that he instructed the equipment managers to inflate the ball to a specific PSI that falls below the league's specified amount? No way.
My theory above is simply that, an unsubstantiated guess. But it helps explain the behavior of all involved, including the team's suspension of the people responsible for deflating the balls. It's likely that the sanctions will be reduced through the appeal process that will probably all end just in time for training camps to open. That isn't a guess, but about as rock solid a prediction as I can give. After all, it's all about protecting the shield and promoting the brand.
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