For many NFL fans, the Patriots are like the “Cobra Kai” team from Karate Kid and coach Bill Belichick could well be sensei, John Kreese, screaming “sweep the leg” at NFL games to Tom Brady. That image was reaffirmed this week with the reported finding that the Patriots, again, cheated in the game against the Indianapolis Colts to secure a position in the Superbowl. The NFL has reportedly claimed that the Patriots under inflated 11 out of 12 balls in clear violation of NFL rules to give Brady and his receivers an edge. If there was intentional deflation, it warrants punishment since the team is responsible under the rules. However, there is an even more serious question of intentional deception, particularly after the deflation was noticed in the course of the game. The question is whether Belichick and Brady were aware of the violations, particularly after Brady called the accusations “ridiculous.” If the Colts and the refs immediately could tell the difference, it is hard to believe that Brady could not. After all, it was Brady who once said that he preferred under-inflated balls.
The Patriots have reportedly received a letter with the initial findings that 11 of 12 games used by the Patriots were under-inflated. Since the balls are checked at the beginning of the game and virtually all of the balls showed under inflation (it is intriguing to think whether the last ball was kept fully inflated in case of an inspection), it is hard to argue that this is a weird coincidence. All balls must be inflated to a range of 12½ to 13½ pounds. Each team provides game officials with 12 footballs before the game and the inspecting ref places a special marking on each ball that passes inspection. The respective team is then given back the balls.
What appears clear is that such deflation is not accidental. The New York Times includes a quote from Kevin Murphy, who runs the American football division at Wilson that such deflation could not be the result of colder weather or spiking the ball. Of course, when 11 out of 12 balls show the deflation you are even less likely to believe such defenses. Belichick is viewed by many as something of a recidivist on rule violations with what has been described (charitably) as a “checkered” history. Likewise, if Brady was aware of the deflation, I believe that he should also be suspended as much for his later denials of knowledge (and calling the allegations ridiculous). There has been be some sanction for dishonesty not only in such acts but their aftermath if we are to deter such conduct and assure fans that these games are played fairly. As often discussed in criminal law and torts, deterrence is accomplished through the relative adjustments between detection rates and sanctions. The lower the detection rate, the higher sanctions must be to achieve deterrence.
The question is what to do about “deflategate.” No one is seriously thinking of negating the win since the Patriots crushed the Colts and it was not due to under-inflation unless that is a reference to the Colts offensive line. Indeed, even a Colts Cornerback appears to agree with that assessment. However, the Patriots have been regularly accused of wrongdoing and there is a serious question about a culture of dishonesty under Belichick. In 2007, Belichick was fined $500,000 and his team lost a first-round draft pick after determining the team had spied on an opponent’s signals. It was amazing that he was not suspended for the violation, but many will now argue that the team did not get the message (or that it got the message that it could treat violations of a cost of doing business). One possible sanction is to suspend Belichick or other coaches from the Superbowl if they knew or should have known about the deflation.
Under the rules, the organization could be fined $25,000. Even if you multiply that by the balls, it would still only be $275,000 — a small fine for giving Brady his preferred under-inflated balls. The most serious penalty could be the loss again of a draft pick, which would seem more than justified in this circumstance. However, since the team denied any knowledge of under-inflation with players like Brady mocking the notion, there is a serious question of dishonesty and unsportsmanship conduct in the aftermath as well as the game. In the real world, lying to investigators is treated as itself a separate crime as under 18 U.S.C. 10001. This is obviously not a criminal investigation but the NFL at least claims to hold players and coaches to higher standards than just avoiding criminal acts.
The under-inflation of the balls would have been tempting in the rainy game and the obvious difference was immediately noted by Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson when he intercepted Tom Brady late in the second quarter.
The Patriots were already under fire by the Ravens coach and others for what John Harbaugh called “deceptive practices” in its game with his team (notably, the Ravens also raised concerns in the game over what they thought were under-inflated balls). I was less convinced of the merits of that allegation. This however is different.
To me, this is a serious violation of the code that governs all sporting events. As many on this blog know, I am an avid football fan. I enjoy the game even when the Bears are not playing, which for the playoffs has meant most of the time in the last ten years. However, this type of conduct degrades the entire game and creates a suspicion that teams like the Patriots are using shady means to gain an advantage, even when they have no real need to do so against an inferior team. It undermines the integrity of the game and, for a team that was made infamous by past violations, it suggests a culture of indifference at best and dishonesty at worst. The question in my view is not the under inflation but the knowledge of the coaches and players. If there was knowledge, there should be serious consideration given to suspension and certainly a draft pick loss.
What do you think?