What really happened during Deflategate? Five years later, the NFL’s ‘scandal’ aged poorly

Hey, baseball world: We here on the NFL side are sorry to see your game engulfed in a cheating scandal. It’s truly awful to know that the Houston Astros swindled their way to the 2017 World Series title. But I’ve got to laugh and remind you that five years ago today, the NFL produced a scandal that was chess to your checkers.

Deflategate was a Jedi mind trick to your multiplication tables. It was HD digital to your analog. In its zeal to preserve the perception of credible outcomes, the NFL scandalized itself with an investigation that produced far more suspicion, ill will and accusations of impropriety than the original allegations themselves.

At its core, Deflategate suggested that the New England Patriots used an illegal process for lowering the inflation of game footballs at the behest of quarterback Tom Brady, who preferred the grip of softer balls. The NFL thought it found proof during a surprise and unprecedented inflation check at halftime of the 2014 AFC Championship Game, a 45-7 drubbing of the Indianapolis Colts. It then spent upward of $22 million over the course of two years to investigate, litigate and discipline Brady and the organization.

At best, it was a relatively minor rules violation that no rational person would link to the Patriots’ victory two weeks later in Super Bowl XLIX. At worst, Deflategate was a retroactive framing of the league’s most successful franchise and a future Hall of Fame quarterback, a clumsy and forgettable endeavor and an unfortunate reminder that the NFL’s standard for discipline demands only that an event was “more probable than not” to have occurred. Brady ultimately served a four-game suspension because the NFL believed he was “generally aware” of the scheme.

The Astros’ cheating scandal has proved tidy by comparison. It began in November, when former Astros pitcher Mike Fiers explained how the team used video cameras to steal signs and communicate them to batters. In swift order, nearly everyone involved acknowledged, or at least accepted, the basic veracity of the story. Ten weeks later, baseball suspended Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and manager AJ Hinch and fined the Astros $5 million, the maximum allowed under baseball’s constitution. Astros owner Jim Crane accepted the discipline and promptly fired Luhnow and Hinch. Former Astros bench coach Alex Cora lost his job as manager of the Boston Red Sox, and former Astros player Carlos Beltran agreed to step away from his job as the New York Mets’ manager.

Additional information could add to the fallout. But if anything, the Astros got off easy for measures that could have substantively contributed to a championship. Crane retained ownership, the franchise kept its World Series title and none of the players involved faced discipline.

The Patriots? They paid dearly for a far less consequential allegation, in part because the NFL considered them repeat cheaters after the 2007 Spygate affair.

In this case, however, the Patriots denied nearly every aspect of the NFL’s allegations, including Brady’s involvement, and took extraordinary steps to defend themselves. That effort included a website to dispute the NFL’s Wells Report on the scandal, one that included multiple scientists pointing out that footballs can deflate naturally based on weather conditions.

The Patriots even submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Brady, who filed a federal lawsuit against the league to overturn his suspension, straddling the line between NFL stakeholder and whistleblower. (Brady got his suspension overturned in 2015 but ultimately lost on appeal and served the punishment in 2016.)

Yet when it was all over, no one could say for sure if Deflategate actually happened. A reasonable person could be left thinking that the investigation itself was the true scandal.

The Wells Report was based largely on a series of text messages from an equipment assistant who referred to himself as “The Deflator,” and the unexplained pregame detour of a locker room attendant who brought the game balls into a bathroom with him before the game. There was no direct evidence that the equipment assistant removed air from the footballs, or that Brady asked him to do it. And the halftime inflation measurement was a rushed and haphazard effort, one that would never pass scientific scrutiny to confirm accuracy.

In the end, it is nothing more than an opinion to suggest that it was “more probable than not” that Deflategate happened. In the terms of advanced statistics, the NFL was saying there was a 51% probability that Deflategate occurred but a 100% necessity to issue discipline. It’s not outlandish to think that someone connected with the Patriots might have tried to help Brady, or that Brady had tacitly accepted that help, but there’s no direct evidence of it.

And when an MIT professor explained that weather conditions could do the same thing, based on the ideal gas law, who could argue? The NFL wouldn’t have known either way, because it did not regularly record pounds-per-square-inch readings to that point. For all we know, football deflation occurred naturally every week.

The ensuing rule changes only further undermined the investigation and punishment. They brought structure to pregame measurements, game ball security and compliance, a tacit acknowledgment that there was little objective basis to the 2014 readings.

The shaky connections and the preposterous conclusions of Deflategate have allowed it to slip quietly from the NFL consciousness. The legacy of Deflategate is the complete and utter lack of one, other than the brief entrance of the ideal gas law into the football lexicon — and as grist to limit the benefit of the doubt in the ongoing investigation into the Patriots’ illegal videotaping last month from the Cincinnati Bengals’ press box.

The league has never released the results of tests on football air pressure, nor acknowledged a single violation in the years since. While Major League Baseball should be expected to institute major efforts to curb illegal sign-stealing, the NFL has left Deflategate to stand alone as an unintended example of what happens when you jump too soon into a rabbit’s hole. If you’re an angry baseball fan who thinks the game’s leaders haven’t been vigilant enough about potential cases of cheating, well, let us in the NFL world issue this warning: Be careful what you wish for.

Five mostly quiet years later, I’d like to say the NFL learned a lesson. But sometimes a larger scope is necessary. Five years before Deflategate, the NFL’s championship weekend gave us another “gate.” The accusation: New Orleans Saints players stood to gain financially if they could injure Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre during the 2009 NFC Championship Game. The two-year investigation into Bountygate contained so many holes that retired commissioner Paul Tagliabue, brought in to handle appeals and clean up the mess, vacated the discipline of four players and sharply criticized what he called a “contaminated” investigation.

So we’ll reserve judgment on whether the NFL has moved past its phase of incendiary investigations. It could just be on the five-year plan, and if that’s the case, keep your head on a swivel this weekend.

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