And just like that, Deflategate is back in the spotlight.
News recently broke that the NFL may possibly release the results of their year-long study of the PSI in footballs in the week between the AFC/NFC Championship games and the Super Bowl. I have a funny feeling that much will depend on whether or not the Patriots will be representing the AFC in Santa Clara, but with no real evidence to back that up, all I can do at this point is guess.
And with Deflategate occurring a year ago this past weekend, SI's own Michael McCann, who has been excellent in his relatively objective coverage of the story, released a retrospective of sorts that he has titled "The Anatomy of a Failed Controversy." It's well worth the read.
Now usually I read Mr. McCann and find much to agree with; he's a lawyer, he knows the law, and he took a look at both sides while coming to a fairly reasonable conclusion. In this case, however, he and I are going to have to disagree.
Deflategate was not a failed controversy. In fact, I'd go so far as to call it a triumphant success.
I honestly can't think of many situations that worked out so well for the NFL. Maybe I'm way off base here - it certainly wouldn't be the first time - but it seems to be that this whole thing couldn't possibly have worked out better for the league. And here's why.
One, it put the NFL at the front of the media news cycle for the bulk of the calendar year and kept the league relevant to the general public even during the slowest of times. There really is no such thing as bad publicity, and even during the months when sports fans usually turn their attention to March Madness, the NBA Finals, Spring Training, and the Stanley Cup, the NFL remained front and center in our collective minds. The investigation, The Wells Report, the verdict, the appeal, the lawsuit, and the Brady Exoneration, all spaced fairly evenly, took us right up to the very start of the 2015 season and allowed the sport of football and not the business of it to pick up right where Deflategate left off. To dominate the news cycle like that even when there isn't any football on TV is a huge boon for the NFL.
Not only that, but the league was able to dominate the news cycle while simultaneously diverting attention away from some very serious, very legitimate issues that they mishandled that might not have found most of the country so forgiving. Looking back on the ineptitude, corruption, dishonesty, and greed that surrounded domestic violence, child abuse, CTE, player depression, the increased risk of veteran suicide rates, and sexual abuse, the NFL had a veritable laundry list of failures all across the board. However, nobody spoke a single word about any of that nasty business as they argued over the merits of "more probable than not" and "generally aware." Even with the movie Concussion now out to rave reviews, people still would rather talk about PSI and the Ideal Gas Law. The issues still aren't being addressed and many of them have been all but forgotten by the general public. What a massive win for the league.
Three, it increased the enjoyment football for the vast majority of fans. Outside of the New England area, very few people were happy to see the Patriots playing in yet another Super Bowl. It was their sixth this millennium. The storylines were all played out. This country needs new things to happen all the time. Everyone was sick of them winning. Their opponent was also in the Super Bowl the year before and that game was one of the least competitive in the history of the league. Super Bowl 49 wasn't a game that anyone without a vested interest in one of the two teams was overly excited to see. But with the news that the NFL's Golden Boy might have some skeletons in that gilded, moated closet of his was simply too good to ignore. It took what would have otherwise been a rehashing of the same old news and instead fashioned it into a very sturdy handhold for anyone who wants to bring down the Patriots and discredit their unprecedented success. And whenever you find out that the Prom Queen might have rigged the election or that the restaurant putting you out of business might be using genetically modified burgers, you are going to want to believe that, and are going to take an immense amount of joy in watching it play out. If evidence to the contrary starts to come out after the fact, who cares? The narrative has already been set, and plus you're having way too much fun watching the king squirm to change your opinion now. That was how most of the football watching world felt as Patriots fans took up their spots on the wall. Without doing too much heavy lifting, the NFL made football more fun for almost everyone.
Four, it took one of the slowest times of the football news cycle - the bye week in between the Conference Championship games and the Super Bowl - and ensured that not only was there a juicy storyline to sink our teeth into, but there was a storyline that everyone would be talking about. Reporters always struggle for content during these two weeks, but not this year. This year there was one question on everybody's minds, and that was how to best place the asterisks next to everything that Tom Brady has ever done. "No storyline" went to "HUGE storyline" virtually overnight, made a lot of people's jobs very easy, helped some reporters launch careers, and provided additional talking points for anyone with a pulse. And at the center of it all was a business entity that is actively trying to expand its brand and generate more exposure.
Five, Deflategate was presented in a way that allowed for speculation to become fact and for whatever narrative you as a fan found most enjoyable to become the truth. Are you a Pats fan? Plenty of faulty science, circumstantial evidence, and false leaks to point to as proof that this whole debacle is just garbage. Do the Patriots make you furious? Check out a few cryptic texts, a guy heading into the bathroom with a bag of balls, and a destroyed cell phone as the NFL equivalent of six different cameras catching Tom Brady slaughtering an entire box of puppies in front of a burning orphanage whose door has been barricaded by his four tainted trophies. And when you have two sides of a story in which your take on it is clearly right and anyone who can't see how blatantly obvious it is that your opinion is the only one a sane person can possibly come to is just some ignorant fool who isn't worth the breath it takes to verbally smack them down, the result is debate, debate, debate - usually on comment threads, radio programs, sports shows, and other forms of media in which the NFL has a vested interest. And with web traffic comes advertisers.
Which leads me to point seven - the only one that really matters. Deflategate made the league a buttload of money, and continues to do so. Ratings skyrocketed, as did jersey sales. The 2015 season opener between the Patriots and the Steelers set all kinds of records and it was never hard for game announcers to reference Deflategate whenever the Patriots played in their many primetime games this season. The one thing that has driven league decisions above all else - the bottom line - received a massive boon because of Deflategate, and all at the expense of a team who managed to make it to the Final Four anyway. Ultimately nothing adverse happened to the Patriots, whose lost 1st round pick became less and less valuable with each win, the league (and owners) made a bundle, and it's business as usual.
Now, with the league set to possibly release PSI data in the week between the Conference Championshp games and the Super Bowl, the stage is all set for them to do it all over again. There is absolutely zero chance that any data will be released if it makes the NFL look bad in any way, so if the numbers do come out, expect them to shine unfavorable light on New England. You can also expect several questions essential to the validity of the testing - what was the outdoor temperature for each game? What was the indoor temperature? Were an equal number of cold and warm weather games used in the sample? Were the footballs inflated indoors or outdoors? Was the same gauge used throughout? - to go unanswered. This could turn into a repeating pattern for as long as the NFL chooses to drag this out. And with the popularity of the subject matter, why wouldn't they?
There are those who would argue that this whole thing made the league look incompetent and foolish, and ultimately this black mark on the Goodell regime will ultimately lead to his downfall. But to those folks, I pose the following question: what has happened in the NFL over the past several years that has given you any reason to believe that anyone in the front office cares in the slightest about that? The business side of the league has two main concerns: profit and broader exposure. Those two elements go hand in hand. Should Roger Goodell come across as a bungling buffoon on the way to raking in money for both the NFL and its owners, I can assure you absolutely nobody is losing any sleep over it. And if Goodell does get canned at the end of his contract, he'll be crying himself to sleep on a mattress stuffed with $10,000 bills as the owners send him consolation baskets made out of diamonds. Image isn't important to the league, and hasn't been for some time. They can preach integrity all that they want, but they aren't fooling anybody. The NFL is a business that wants to make money, and Deflategate has done that for them in spades.
And nobody is immune. Not even yours truly, who wasn't really all that invested in Deflategate until the very end and isn't really invested in it now. This article is almost 2,000 words long and you're all reading it. There's nothing we can do. Brady vs. Manning and Deflategate all in the NFL news cycle at once. The league wins again.
So here we go. We've come to the end of the playlist, and it's time to hit the Repeat button. Maybe it will end differently, maybe it won't, but there won't be any escaping it should the results of this study actually see the light of day. I hope everyone had fun the first time around, because if the Patriots win this Sunday, we're probably going to see a lot more of it. I'll give the same advice I gave last time when all this stuff broke - who cares? Enjoy some football. It's the least you can do now that the league has all of your money.