It’s been two years since one of the most notorious nights in New England Patriots history. Tom Brady led the team past the Indianapolis Colts, punching a ticket to a Super Bowl the Pats would eventually win, but the night also featured the air pressure measurements that triggered the Deflategate saga and riled New England sports fans.
The same night marked the start of a wild run for Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineering professor John Leonard, who saw major flaws in the science the NFL used in determining that Brady was guilty of ordering the deflation of balls and deserved a four-game suspension.
He gave a lecture on the topic that went viral on YouTube. He authored a piece for Sports Illustrated that disputed the NFL’s claims. And he was among a stable of professors that submitted an amicus brief criticizing the science as Brady’s appeal of the suspension wound through the federal court system. All that, and he’s not even a Patriots fan.
“I’m an Eagles fan, tried and true. I’m not sad when the Patriots lose,” he said. “I can’t choose what I’m obsessed with, and I sort of got obsessed with this.”
As Brady, who served his suspension earlier this season, prepares to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Sunday’s AFC Championship Game, Leonard is offering what he says will be his final contribution on the topic: a free video lesson for high school teachers and students on the science behind the controversy. In the video, which was released through MIT, Leonard discusses the Ideal Gas Law in the context of Deflategate and tasks students with completing activities related to football air pressure.
Leonard said the goal is to help students better understand the physics of air pressure and temperature by connecting them to a major event in popular culture, not to bellow Brady’s innocence. But he said educating young people about the science might help Brady’s legacy down the line.
“My brother-in-law is a New York Giants fan and refuses to even entertain the hypothesis that science explains the [air pressure] measurements,” he said. “Maybe 12 years from now, there’s somebody in New York who saw this video in class and their parents are saying, ‘Oh, that Brady is getting inducted into the Hall of Fame? What about Deflategate?’ And their son or daughter says, ‘Oh, no, no, no Dad, let me show you the physics.’”
Leonard said he’s presently on sabbatical from MIT and is working on driverless car technology with Toyota in Kendall Square. Deflategate is all over at this point, Leonard said, and he doesn’t plan to center any more work on it.
His takeaway? Even though the scandal prompted plenty of scientific opportunities, he doesn’t consider it a net positive.
“I think it’s a real shame that it happened,” he said. “Because if you believe like I do that the measurements are easily explained by physics, there’s a part of me that believes just as a basic principle of justice, something went terribly wrong here.”