The longer the so-called “DeflateGate” hullabaloo reigns as the dominant Super Bowl topic, the more blame the NFL deserves, and the more the league’s motivations should be questioned. The NFL, with a glacial investigation and dearth of public comment, has shown no signs it wants the story to burn out. And it may have allowed the uproar to live in the first place.
The storyline advanced late Monday afternoon, when FOX Sports’s Jay Glazer reported the NFL had “zeroed in” on a person of interest: a locker room attendant who allegedly carried footballs from the officials’ locker room — where the balls would have been checked — to another area on the way to the field. According to Glazer, the NFL has interviewed the “person of interest” and has video.
During its most important week of the year, the NFL has willingly enabled a phony “controversy” to fill the space that may otherwise be dedicated to actual controversies that engulf the league. Rather than concussion settlements, or the league’s response to domestic violence, or the viability of Roger Goodell’s commissionership, discussions have focused on the amount of air inside the Patriots’ footballs.
If the Patriots cheated, they of course should be punished. But the NFL has complicated the process beyond reason, and in doing so it allowed a farcical over-reaction to stand in for discussion pertaining to the game’s alarming sins. The league has allowed the Patriots to play the role of the villain, a convenient distraction from its own scandalous year.
The NFL could have made this simple. It had an entire week to send officials to New England and let them poke around, to interview players, coaches, equipment managers, ball boys and anyone else affiliated with the franchise. This isn’t a CSI-level case, or even the Ray Rice investigation. The NFL could have spoken with everyone it needed to right away.
Yet the first person the NFL’s investigators should have interviewed, quarterback Tom Brady, still hasn’t heard a word from the league. In an interview on ESPN, Brady said the NFL wouldn’t contact him until after the season. In a statement Friday, the NFL said investigators, led by Ted Wells, had interviewed 40 people. But if they’re not talking to Brady, what are they doing?
The lack of a conclusion has allowed a vacuum of new information to keep the story ablaze. The NFL may not have orchestrated “DeflateGate,” but in hindsight it couldn’t have wished for a better development. When the evening news leads with Ray Rice in September, it’s a black eye. When all three networks report on PSI in January, it’s publicity.
The Super Bowl was already a terrific matchup, and “DeflateGate” has added a Tonya-and-Nancy appeal. The media storm has made life miserable for the Patriots, but it’s only going to help inflate the Super Bowl’s already-monstrous ratings. And the league’s inaction has made sure it’s not going away as Super Bowl week begins.
The NFL may have badly mishandled the episode before it even began. ESPN’s Ed Werder reported that when informed of alleged cheating by the Patriots, the NFL tried to catch them in the act rather than telling them to conform.
In its statement, the NFL said its investigation started “based on information that suggested that the game balls used by the New England Patriots were not properly inflated to levels required by the playing rules.” But it didn’t clarify when it learned that information. Asked for clarification Monday afternoon, the league provided little.
“We are in the process of conducting a thorough investigation on the issue of the footballs used in the AFC Championship,” Wells said in a statement sent by a league spokesman. “This work began last week, stretched through the weekend, and is proceeding expeditiously this week notwithstanding the Super Bowl. We are following customary investigative procedures and no one should draw any conclusions about the sequence of interviews or any other steps, all of which are part of the process of doing a thorough and fair investigation. I expect the investigation to take at least several more weeks. In the interim, it would be best if everyone involved or potentially involved in this matter avoids public comment concerning the matter until the investigation is concluded. The results will be shared publicly.”
Werder’s report leads to a dumbfounding possibility. If the NFL knew the Patriots operated with deflated footballs and waited until halftime to play “gotcha,” then the league willingly allowed – if not outright encouraged – the Patriots to gain a slim, illegal advantage for an entire half of the AFC Championship.
It would be a preposterous abdication of what should be any league’s first priority: guaranteeing a level playing field. The NFL could have ensured the Patriots used footballs with the proper amount of air pressure if it gone to them prior to the game. Look, people think you’re using an illegal ball. If it’s true, knock it off. In a situation that called for engagement, the league may have chosen entrapment.
We don’t know when, exactly, the NFL could have prevented the Patriots’ illegal use of under-inflated balls. But trying to catch them red-handed would be in line with the bizarre brand of paternalism with which Goodell has run the league. Over and over again, Goodell has cast himself as an enforcer when the league needs a leader. In circumstances that could be handled with common sense, Goodell searches for his gavel.
The NFL, perhaps, could have halted “DeflateGate” before it began. Once it started, it had ample opportunity to stem the tidal wave of attention. The NFL has kept the controversy alive by choice, because it knows it’s really no controversy at all.
More on Super Bowl XLIX