The NFL’s Perfect Little Scandal

The 2014-15 NFL season: The year the New England Patriots deflated the footballs, and nothing else.

Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Yes, the problem with the NFL is deflated footballs.

That’s the one.

It’s not the complicated stuff we have chosen to forget because we ran out of energy as the league stalled and stalled until the clock ran out. It’s not the commissioner who ignored a domestic violence crisis, then hired the same company that negotiated the league’s latest TV deal to conduct an “independent investigation” to absolve the NFL and commissioner of any wrongdoing. It’s not the concussion problem, either, or the Pro Bowler on trial for allegedly murdering three people over two seasons.

The problem with the NFL is the New England Patriots, who were caught using underinflated footballs that were hypothetically easier to catch in their 38-point romp over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game.

The problem with the NFL is deflated footballs, because that’s the one we can fit into a neat little sentence.

Or maybe the problem is an entirely real fear of institutional failure reassigned to something manageable and tangible, to a group of people who could be rooted against and—at the end of the day—conceivably lose.

A coach directing a ball boy to jab a football with a ball pump and hurriedly let air out of 11 of them in a closet somewhere is comical, villainous—a Wile E. Coyote kind of thing. It’s indisputably treacherous, and a little funny. You can’t not root against that guy. And maybe Patriots coach Bill Belichick will lose the Super Bowl for the third time a week from Sunday. Karma.

But there is no way the NFL can lose. When it is losing, it changes the rules for itself.

A commissioner potentially avoiding a videotape for months of a player punching a woman, then hiring a friend of the family dressed as a detective, then releasing the results of that “report” (full clemency, of course!) as a news dump over the holidays? It’s a lot harder to say out loud in a fit of despair. And there’s no scoreboard that will provide any justice for it.

We are bloodthirsty for something, and we need an ending. Thank God for the ball-deflating New England Patriots, patsies in every way.

“This is an ethical or even moral question the NFL would much rather be hung with. It’s about winning. It’s not domestic violence or child abuse,” said Jon Keller.

Keller is usually a politics reporter in Boston and the host of things like TV roundtables and mayoral debates. But he wrote about the Patriots this week because he wanted to talk to a professional about why so many people care about deflated footballs. He wound up speaking with a Harvard psychology professor who told him that it’s all about deflection.

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“Given everything that happened, cheating with the footballs themselves is so much more benign than ignoring concussion risks and turning a blind eye to players who are beating their wives and children,” Keller said. “Maybe in the end, it’s a weird silver lining for the NFL. The bottom line is eyeballs on TV.”

This has been done before, by the way. Historically not-good quarterback Brad Johnson readily admits to paying $7,500 to have 100-something game balls doctored before Super Bowl XXXVII.

When players or coaches in other sports pull similar stuff, it’s rewarded as cutesy ingenuity. That’s because it is. The air conditioner was turned off in Game 1 of last year’s NBA Finals. It was 90 degrees in San Antonio’s AT&T Center in June. LeBron James cramped up and the Spurs won easily. NBA player Jason Terry believed it was all Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s doing. It wasn’t, but there was this:

“I can remember very well one time where it was cold showers, there were about a thousand flies in the locker room. This year, there was a snake in the locker room. So, they’re going to pull out all the stops to get into your head. When you go to San Antonio, expect something like that,” Terry said. “They’re going to pull out all the stops to get into your head. I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy, but I’m telling you, going into San Antonio is a tough place to play.”

Boston’s own Red Auerbach invented the cold water trick. The water fountain in the visitors’ locker room in the Boston Garden was hooked up to the sewage line. It’s mentioned glowingly in his obituary.

But not in the NFL, where everyone is held to a higher standard, until they aren’t.

One of the sources described the league as “disappointed, angry, distraught.” Not about the punching a woman stuff. About deflated footballs.

What a perfect little scandal. The 2014-15 NFL season: The year the Patriots deflated the footballs, and nothing else.