If you've been struggling to care about the Patriots being accused of deflating footballs, and have been hoping the whole thing would just blow over so we could get to talking about a truly excellent and fascinating Super Bowl matchup, you, my friend, are shit out of luck. Ballghazi is real, and it is just the thing to fill an off-week.
ESPN reported last night that a league investigation has discovered that 11 of the Patriots' 12 footballs used in their whupping of the Colts were underinflated, and by a significant margin: two pounds per square inch below the acceptable 12.5-13.5 psi range. The NFL, per Chris Mortensen's source, is "disappointed ... angry ... distraught," not because there might be shenanigans going on here—no one should be shocked at that—but because the league now has to deal with this bullshit. ("Distraught!" This is the best, dumbest scandal.)
The more context that emerges, the more it feels like messing with footballs is akin to pitchers doctoring baseballs: everybody does it, and nobody looks too closely until an opponent publicly complains. Aaron Rodgers says he likes his balls overinflated. Brad Johnson says that before the Super Bowl, he paid "some guys" $7,500 to illegally rough up 100 game balls. Quarterbacks are understandably particular about the feel of their footballs, and teams seem to have an unspoken agreement to respect each other's freedom to squeeze and scuff and shine their own balls to their preference, as long as it stays within the bounds of decency. Either the Patriots went beyond those bounds, or the Colts were extra-salty and felt they had nothing to lose.
It remains to be seen—and I don't know it could ever be proven either way—just what happened to those footballs. The rules state that 12 footballs are provided to each team before the game to be inspected and broken in (a 2006 rule change pushed through by Tom Brady and Peyton Manning; prior to that, the home team was responsible for both teams' balls), then returned to the officials for approval two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. Were the Pats' balls acceptable when they turned them in to referee Walt Anderson? If so, what happened to them to deflate them by the time they were put into play? And why, in 2015, are we still handling footballs this way?
Bill Polian has a simple, obvious solution:
"Just treat the footballs exactly like the K-balls," he said, referring to the balls used for kicking. "Keep them in the officials' custody until right before the game, and once they've been inspected, give them to a neutral person to handle them during the game on the sidelines."
But now is not the time for sense. Now is the time for screaming, and settling old scores, and reveling in a scandal that's goofy but genuinely revealing of the tenuous web of gentlemen's agreements that allows the NFL to even function. The fractally expanding rulebook is impossible to follow to the letter, so players and teams and officials have carved out an unwritten shadow rulebook, with its own, more realistic bounds of acceptability. Linemen are allowed to get away with a modicum of holding. The Seahawks secondary can commit pass interference on every single play. Tom Brady can fuck with his footballs. The NFL's existence is predicated on winks and nods, and it's hilarious (if worrying) that the whole thing can collapse thanks to one bitter team appealing the letter of the law.
What should happen, and what probably will happen, is that the Patriots will be fined some token amount, and everyone will move on, but not before making a billion jokes about balls, and not without this relatively victimless crime tainting everything the Patriots have ever done, no matter how illogical that is. Because, damn it, it's fun to needle Pats fans about Spygate and Eli and now this, because why should they be allowed to have nice things?
It won't be so simple as all that, thanks in large part to the boredom caused by the two-week Super Bowl break and the many, many column inches to fill. There will be calls for blood, and recriminations, and conspiracy theories galore. The Ravens are already alleging the Patriots got to their kicking balls. Roger Goodell's cozy relationship with Bob Kraft is being brought up.
Nothing can happen easily around here, because the NFL is a control-freak league uniquely unsuited to the practical exercise of that control. And we, the unaffiliated fans and unabashed scandal-groupies, are all better off for it. Buckle up, because we've got 11 more days before the Super Bowl, and the NFL is going to keep a firm grip on Tom Brady's balls.