The quarterback fidgeted on the podium. It was Jan. 22, Tom Brady’s first time formally addressing Deflategate, a scandal that would grow to Super Bowl-sized proportions amid allegations that footballs were being improperly deflated to suit his preferred grip.
That much-analyzed press conference is getting even more scrutiny now, in light of the Wells Report finding that Brady was “at least generally aware” of what was going on. As he stood before journalists back in January, the vaunted recipient of multiple Super Bowl rings and MVP trophies shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
“So can you answer right now?” a reporter asked point-blank. “Is Tom Brady a cheater?”
Brady laughed and blinked twice as he responded with “I don’t believe so.”
It’s unclear at this point whether Brady blatantly lied. But, if he did, it wouldn’t be the first time that a famous person has stepped up to the microphone and done so, forcefully. Maybe that’s extreme hubris or evidence of a pathological streak. Maybe it just depends on your definition of lying. (In the words of Bill Clinton, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.”)
What makes someone misrepresent himself under extreme duress? Experts say it’s about self-preservation and stretching the truth to serve one’s needs. Little white lies can turn into big ones and the web entangles its weaver.
Deputy chancellor and professor of psychology Robert Feldman of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has dedicated years to understanding why people use what’s politely called verbal deception. What he found is that virtually everyone lies. In his research, when two people are getting to know one another the average person lies three times in the first 10 minutes.
“It’s not disordered people,” Feldman said. “Everyone lies as a way of manipulating their image … we use lying as a social lubricant.”
It’s a balm to soothe situations that are averse and make them go away.
And, in most cases, people believe what they want to believe. America loves its heroes. Few receive more praise than this nation’s athletes. They’re trusted to go into high-stress situations and succeed, to not break under pressure, to smile and press on. Brady is known for his nerves of steel. He’s the field general who naps in the locker room before a Super Bowl. Mere mortals can’t possibly understand the world in which he does battle, nor should we try too hard, goes the thinking.
Much is being made of Brady’s forceful statement, for example, that he “didn’t alter the ball in any way.” Was this just an artful dodge to keep him honest because technically somebody else did the actual altering?
“Some may call this a Clintonian type of response,” said Martin W. Healy, chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts Bar Association, a reference to Bill Clinton’s false hedge that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.”
Brady “seemed to be very well-prepared for the questions asked of him,” said Healy. “Obviously he must have consulted [with] an attorney or some public relations communications expert …
“He was very aware that he should not be making representations about others’ conduct or behavior … You can kind of assist a client in making a statement that is general enough to deny involvement but also leave room for retreat later on, if need be.”
Many experts on human behavior believe it is difficult to hide a lie, including Joseph Tecce, a professor of psychology at Boston College who specializes in the analysis of body language. He reviewed the video of Brady’s press conference, including his eye blink rate, and concluded the quarterback was telling the truth.
According to Tecce, the average blink rate of someone being interviewed on television is 30 to 50 blinks per minute. But when someone is suppressing a lie, “they usually show some discomfort in the form of increased blink rate and gaze aversion.”
Yet during his press conference, Brady blinked about 21 times per minute, Tecce observed, “so he was comfortable in making these statements. There was no indication in the body language that he was lying.”
He added that this is not simply the hallmark of the supremely self-assured. “It is incorrect to infer that [Brady] lied and that his low blink rate is simply a matter of an athlete being so well-disciplined that he can control his body language,” Tecce said. He noted that a perfect case in point is Roger Clemens, a disciplined Hall of Fame baseball pitcher, who showed dramatic gaze aversion and lip smacking when he apparently lied to Congress about taking steroids.
Clinical and forensic psychologist Paul Zeizel works with the Drug Enforcement Administration and has testified on markers of deception. Based in Brookline, he’s collaborated with agents who did polygraph tests. In his experience, people who are lying often do so to save face. Duplicitous behavior by politicians may not shake public opinion much these days, as in the cases of former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner or former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer. But, Zeizel asked, who would’ve thought a decade ago that anyone would question the integrity of Bill Cosby, Brian Williams or Lance Armstrong?
“People we think are so fantastic aren’t always so fantastic,” he said. “Sometimes famous people believe if they’ve done so many good things they’ve earned currency and can use those good things to undo the bad.”
In any case, many may be inclined to give the quarterback the benefit of the doubt. “I don’t think it’s game over for Brady,” Healy said. “This is circumstantial evidence. ... [I]t’s someone else’s words against his.”
Feldman believes that in a few years, even if Brady did lie, most people will forget. No one will care about Deflategate. Fans will forgive just to keep him up on that less than steady pop culture pedestal.
“Without passing judgment on Tom Brady or the accuracy of the report,” Feldman said. “Lying may have been the only way to go in his eyes. People feel they have to be deceptive; they’re motivated by fear of getting caught more than shame.”