Although the 2014-2015 NFL season is officially at a close, the memory of its last scandal is still fresh in the minds of football fans everywhere. The New England Patriots, led by the legendary duo of quarterback Tom Brady and coach Bill Belichick, emerged with yet another Super Bowl victory, but not before being tainted in the public eye with accusations of deflating footballs in the AFC Championship match against the Indianapolis Colts two weeks prior. Some have dubbed it “Deflate-gate,” while others went as far as calling it “Ball-ghazi”. Regardless of what you call it, no single term can adequately capture the series of events in which a seemingly trivial accusation gave way to a combination of biased assumptions, media chaos, conspiracy theories, and angry debate throughout the country.
The whole mess began with the AFC Championship game on January 18 when the Patriots dominated the Colts and won by a score of 45-7. One could probably hear the sighs of football fans throughout the country as the Patriots, arguably the most consistent team in all of American sports over the last decade under Belichick and Brady, were not upset by the promising Colts. This was not out of the ordinary. However, that changed entirely when a report was released soon after the match that 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots had used in the first half had been underinflated. Mayhem ensued as the majority of those in the media as well as fans vocalized the claim that the Patriots had cheated. Some went as far as to call for the suspension of Belichick and even the Patriots themselves from the Super Bowl.
But why all the fuss? First, underinflated balls can confer a significant advantage to the offense, as they are easier to grip, throw, and catch, particularly in bad weather. This advantage would thus cause underinflation of footballs to fall under the umbrella of cheating. In the initial stages of the scandal, many noted that the Patriots outplayed the Colts by a substantially larger margin in the second half, during which the Patriots played with standardly inflated footballs, and thus the underinflated balls didn’t contribute to the win. However, the theory behind the outrage was that, if the footballs had been underinflated to the degree that provided some sort of advantage that was unaccounted for, then it was still cheating regardless of the result. This logic, and therefore the idea that the Patriots could have cheated, seemed fairly reasonable at the time.
What was much less reasonable was the way the media and fans swooped up the chance to defame the Patriots, Belichick, and Brady. The NFL decided to investigate the matter soon after the reports were released, meaning that none of its content had been officially confirmed. During press conferences the day after the game, both Belichick and Brady denied that they had done anything to cheat and claimed that they were unaware that there was even any problem with the footballs until the reports after the match. Unfortunately, the Patriots, the team that everyone besides New Englanders love to hate, never received the benefit of the doubt. This was partially due to the stigma that remained from a previous occasion of cheating by the Patriots in 2007 known colloquially as “Spygate;” it was discovered that the team had videotaped the defensive signal calls of the opposing team during a game against the New York Jets. Many linked the current incident back to Spygate and used this ostensible “trend” of cheating to label Belichick and Brady as dirty liars who would do anything to win.
In recent days, the investigations by the NFL as well as further examination by certain media outlets have revealed that this claim of cheating is largely unjustifiable. One report found that the majority of the balls were only a tick below the official pressure required, not enough to make a substantial difference; the only ball that was seriously underinflated was the one that started the whole controversy. This ball was intercepted by Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson on a throw from Tom Brady and was thought to be underinflated upon examination on the Colts sideline. Other reports found that even the levels of reported underinflation would not really have made a difference; most notably, Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, released an entire lesson explaining why this is so. Now that it seems the Patriots likely weren’t guilty, other conspiracy theories have risen to the surface. One such theory is that the Colts themselves arranged things to settle a previous feud with the Patriots; components of this theory include the possibility that the one football that was intercepted might have been deflated by the Colts themselves on the sidelines and note interesting coincidences like the fact that the first report was released by an official within the Colts’ system hours after the match. As people keep pointing fingers and more theories and accusations are thrown around, the point to take away is that the matter is by no means resolved.
My concern, however, is in regards to the hateful mentality that gave birth to this vicious cycle in the first place. It is no secret that many are jealous of the Patriots’ sustained success; as a Jets fan myself, I can attest to having this sentiment. There have been other allegations of cheating, even during this season, that have received nowhere near as much publicity as this instance. The majority of people who aren’t Patriots fans, myself included, jumped to the conclusion that Belichick and Brady were guilty of wrongdoing before the NFL’s investigation into the matter even began. Even more detrimental was how many of these same people proceeded to defame both Belichick and Brady in every possible manner, ignoring their arduous rise to glory and contributions to the game in an effort to prove that the perfect Patriots weren’t so perfect after all. There is no issue with anger if it is justly earned; however, in this case, it seems like the majority of the nation turned against the Patriots with the intensity that they did largely because they were the Patriots. It is likely that no statistics will ever be available to prove this claim; however, when a deflated football garners as much media attention as the death of the king of Saudi Arabia, one has to wonder why the public became as infatuated with calling out the Patriots as they did. A real example that highlights the potential bias against the Patriots is how the Cleveland Browns, an underperforming team in the NFL, recently received substantial fines and draft pick penalties as punishment for cheating but were hardly scrutinized by the media. I posit that this issue explode into what it has because of the prevalence of Patriots “haters” in the American public looking to leap on some fault or misdoing.
This leads me to wonder about the role of hating in sports. Many fans would argue that it is integral to sports in the way that it creates rivalries, provides extra fire to the fans’ passion, and puts pressure on those receiving the hate, whether they be consistent contenders like the Patriots or consistent laughingstocks like the Jets. That’s a fair argument, but perhaps it is also fair to put forth the notion that people should try to stop hate from reaching a certain point, where they are willing to make assumptions without evidence, throw around accusations, defile legacies of probable Hall of Famers, and begin a cycle of blame and distrust. It’s not something that can be achieved through any institutional or organized means, but it is something that individuals might want to start holding themselves to. That way, we could live in a world where a deflated ball doesn’t span headlines for weeks on end, pervade talk shows, and other social media, and become something that plunges the nation into speculative, hateful debate. This is a reasonable thing to want, no?