The Wells Report, that 243-page, NFL-commissioner-commissioned investigation into whether the Patriots fiddled with the air pressure in a batch of footballs before the AFC Championship game, dropped on the ever-popular nfllabor.files.wordpress.com website a few minutes before 1 p.m. last Wednesday, instantly turning fans and every last football writer in the land into a speed reader.
After five days of debate and suspense, the punishment for the compelling but vague findings in the report — namely that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady had “general awareness” the two low-level Patriots employees conspired to slightly deflate some footballs before the Patriots’ 45-7 victory over the Colts — was revealed a few minutes before 6 p.m. Monday.
The punishment packed a wallop: a four-game suspension for Brady, one of the league’s greatest and most marketable players, as well as a $1 million fine and the loss of two draft picks for the franchise.
Unsurprisingly, the revelation of the report brought instant debate and discussion. The Patriots, four-time Super Bowl champions who were tangled up in a previous scandal, forever known as Spygate, have long been one of the most polarizing franchises in professional sports. But the announcement of the punishment took the noise to another level, and it has not waned in the days since.
This controversy, tagged Deflategate since the story of the suspicious footballs was broken by Indianapolis reporter Bob Kravitz in the immediate hours after the AFC Championship game, is difficult to avoid if you wanted to. The story features an absolutely perfect amalgam of angles and details to fit ESPN’s “embrace debate” culture, particularly on contrived opinion-centric programs such as “First Take,” which features well-compensated serial caterwaulers Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith and is unwatchable without the assistance of the mute button on its best days.
Across the ESPN networks Thursday, the Deflategate story was a topic of the day, if only periodically the topic of the day. It was refreshing to see the highlights and hear the accolades for athletes who accomplished something with a sporting good rather than more about an athlete who allegedly knew something about the manipulation of a sporting good. Deflategate has also kept the heat off the Red Sox, who have gone about trying to right their season in the relative quiet of the West Coast.
But the concept of receiving actual sports news on the sports channels was fleeting, at least by normal sports channel standards. And it remained a hot story on those various other spots on the channel guide where the remote usually pauses for real-world information, or at least some partisan spin on it. Fox, CNN, and MSNBC all had the saga in its rotation of stories and ticker headlines, right there with news of actual relevance and import such as the Amtrak train crash in Philadelphia.
The perceived newsworthiness of Deflategate offered opportunities for local reporters to appear as experts on the national news broadcasts. Considering that the NFL Network’s Albert Breer and Ian Rapoport both have Boston newspaper roots, some of the national appearances had the vibe of auditions.
Locally, Comcast SportsNet New England has seized the opportunity for enhanced and expanded coverage, including an hourlong edition of the always excellent Tom Curran- and Kay Adams-hosted “Quick Slants” on Monday. While NESN has used insightful former Patriot Matt Chatham on its news and highlight programs, its coverage of Deflategate — particularly Monday’s breaking news regarding the punishment — was considerably lacking compared to CSNNE. Channels 4, 5, 7, and 25 have devoted significant time to the topic outside of the sports report, but it’s limited by the time parameters of the newscasts.
The debate is embraced in print, too. The Herald, which ran a “Why Do They Hate Us?” cover Wednesday accompanied by a picture of the Patriots’ four Lombardi Trophies, seems intent on countering Patriots-mocking tone of their tabloid cousins in New York. Neither the Post nor the Daily News can resist a good deflated footballs pun. Or a bad one, for that matter.
For all of the news and the concurrent noise about Deflategate since last Wednesday, it bears noting that perhaps the most compelling conversation about what Brady and the Patriots did or did not know came early in the process. Last Friday on ESPN’s “NFL Live,” Tedy Bruschi and Damien Woody — teammates from 1999-2003 with the Patriots — had a spirited and authentic debate that confirmed just how polarizing this issue has been. Woody, who won two Super Bowls as Brady’s teammate, said he has “great admiration” for Brady but did not back down from his belief that Brady was well aware of the hijinks with the footballs. Bruschi was taken aback by his ex-teammate’s stance, his eyes shooting daggers as he told Woody, “This is what I believe. Tom Brady would not tell anyone to do anything illegal. That’s what I believe.”
Replied Woody: “That’s fine. I mean, listen . . . ”
Then, Bruschi and Woody, in unison: “You and I disagree.”
Bruschi, looking ready to bull-rush Woody: “You think Tom would tell someone to do something illegal?”
Woody, without hesitation: “Yes.”
Bruschi: “That’s fine. I do not believe that. I know his integrity. I would vouch for him. I spent a lot of time with him. I would vouch for his integrity up and down.”
That back-and-forth, seemingly a genuine moment of honest disagreement, took place a week ago. Thursday’s news that Brady had formally filed an appeal — as well as the Patriots’ launching of a website that rebuts much of the Wells Report — assures that the news cycle will continue even longer, leaving us searching for more scattered moments of real candor among the cacophony. Best of luck finding them.