All week, I resisted commenting on the all-consuming story that produced a national media frenzy. I kept waiting for facts, for verifiable information.
Until yesterday, all we knew for sure was that the National Football League was investigating why the footballs used by the New England Patriots in the first half of the AFC Championship Game were under-inflated after being certified by the game officials as meeting NFL standards. The league wanted to know how it happened.
After several days of silence, the NFL on Friday released a statement saying its investigation began after the AFC Championship game Sunday night and that nearly 40-interviews had taken place, so far.
The NFL has been criticized for not acting quickly to: finish its investigation, announce its findings, dish out punishment if warranted, and put the focus back on the field and the upcoming Super Bowl.
But the NFL, wisely, is taking the time to be thorough. Given its recent history with investigations, the league has to get this right. No wonder the league has hired a firm with electronic and video forensic expertise. Just imagine the reaction if the NFL did as critics have suggested and next week, next month, or three months from now, a video turned up that shed new light on this matter.
What is needed right now is patience. Let the league finish its investigation and let’s see what comes of it.
My interest here is to counter some of the arguments about competition I’ve heard this week.
First of all, let’s get a few things out of the way. Has the media’s obsession with this story been over the top?
Of course it has.
Should “Deflategate” have been the headline story across the country all week?
However, for those of you who believe that this is a meaningless investigation and a waste of time, I respectfully disagree.
This story isn’t about the amount of air pressure in a football. This is about the integrity of the sport.
A competition must be conducted between two teams playing by the same rules and conditions — an even playing field in which the winner is determined on merit. If an individual or team attempts to gain a competitive advantage by circumventing the rules of the sport, it shows a lack of integrity. It’s an effort to cheat the other team. It distorts what it means to compete and achieve.
And, it doesn’t matter how much or how little is gained from the attempt.
One of the arguments I’ve heard this week, often from people for whom I have a great deal of respect, is the notion that the game stats clearly show that if deflated footballs were used in the first half of the AFC Championship game, it didn’t help the Patriots. They cite Tom Brady’s better second half numbers when the league says the deflated footballs no longer were in play.
It’s a baseless comparison.
There are too many variables to accurately evaluate how much or how little an under-inflated football might have helped Brady’s confidence or effectiveness in the first half. What we do know is that by the time the Colts touched the ball in the second half, they trailed 24-7. Given the fact the Patriots had allowed a combined 22-points in the second half of their previous 7-games, a one-sided last 30-minutes was to be expected. So, comparing Brady’s performance from one half to the other doesn’t make sense. The game situation was entirely different for both teams.
The “everyone does it” argument fails, too. Many have pointed to other quarterbacks who have admitted preferring to play with footballs that might not meet the specifications. For instance, Aaron Rodgers said he likes the football more inflated than normal. No doubt teams submit footballs prepared the way that will be most advantageous for their quarterback. However, that effort ends once the team turns over those footballs to the officials for inspection. Once certified by the game officials, the footballs are off limits. At that point, it is against the rules to alter the specifications of the football in any way. That’s the issue in question here, not whether teams try to have officials O.K. footballs that don’t meet league standards.
One change the NFL should institute for next season regards the footballs each team uses. All teams should compete using the same footballs. It makes no sense to allow each team to prepare the footballs that it will use in its games. NFL teams should no longer have anything to do with the preparation or handling of the game balls. The quarterbacks will fight this change, but the process needs to be simplified and uniform. The league should prepare all footballs for game use and work with the teams to come-up with a protocol for how the footballs should be prepped. Those footballs should then remain under the control of NFL personnel at all times.
If the NFL investigation finds that someone, acting on behalf of the New England Patriots, took air out of the footballs after they were certified by game officials, the league should come down hard on the club and the person or persons involved. You can’t allow rules to be broken in an effort to gain a competitive advantage. There is too much at stake.
If a league is to keep teams competing fairly and honorably, it has to make the risk of breaking rules higher than the perceived benefit. That requires harsh penalties for violating rules governing fair play. Any league failing to do that risks losing the trust of its fans.
The Integrity of the Game
In sports and in life, there always will be those who try to circumvent rules in order to win or get ahead. At professional and high amateur levels of sports especially, the rewards for cheating are considerable. But, cheating must not become an expected or accepted part of a sport. Left unchecked, it has a corrosive effect on the integrity of the sport. If fans lose faith in the fairness of the competition; if they do not believe that a sport is being played on the level, the competition will no longer be viewed as legitimate.
At every level of every sport, competing fairly and responsibly, and winning with integrity, must be the standard. This is about respect for the game and those who play, watch, and officiate it.
An even playing field is at the heart of fair competition. No sport should allow that concept to be compromised.
The Way You Win Matters™.
Founder & Executive Director
Chuck Wilson is an award-winning host, interviewer, and commentator. He was an original host on ESPN Radio and was with the network for close to 17-years. In 2007, Wilson was named one of the 100 Most Influential Sports Educators in America by the Institute for International Sport. He is the founder of Even Field.