DURHAM, N.H. — The professor got the debate rolling with the first question to the panel.
“Are you surprised by the way the NFL has conducted itself and hasn’t said, ‘Enough is enough?’ ”
Then the 19-year-old college sophomore chimed in.
“When it first started, how far did you expect the league and the commissioner to take it? And at what point did it become about the commissioner showing that he’s not a puppet for Robert Kraft?
Then it was a 21-year-old college senior’s turn.
“How does fact-checking work with anonymous sources?
And finally the 63-year-old organic chemist asked the question on everyone’s mind.
“So, does this make Tom Brady Shoeless Joe Jackson?”
The topic, of course, was Deflategate, the theater-of-the-absurd controversy that engulfed the Patriots and Brady throughout the summer and will continue through the spring as the NFL pursues an appeal of its loss to Brady and the NFL Players Association in federal district court in September.
But the venue for this discussion was a little different: McConnell Hall, Room 240, on the campus of the University of New Hampshire.
It’s listed as “INCO 460 (01) — Deflategate” in the UNH course catalog, and students can take it to satisfy one of their core graduation requirements.
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Deflategate course description
From the New Hampshire course guide
INCO 460 (01) — DEFLATEGATE
Term: Fall 2015-Full Term (08/31-2015-12/11/2015)
This course is not about deflated footballs. Instead, it is about the interplay between those footballs — along with numerous other sports things — and the legal, regulatory and journalistic systems governing sports. Students in Deflategate learn about crucial areas of law that relate to sports and the methodologies used to practice in relevant fields. Students also gain valuable instruction on core journalism methods and their applications to a sports story attracting national headlines. The course concludes with an application of methodologies in law and journalism to Deflategate.
Attributes: Social Science (Discover), Social Science GP 7
Instructors: Michael McCann, Kevin Sousa
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The course meets for three hours every Wednesday night, and has 74 students enrolled, plus a half-dozen local residents auditing the course for fun. Margaret McCabe, associate dean of academic affairs at the UNH School of Law, approached professor Michael McCann in February about starting a sports law class for undergraduates, and wondered if they could center it around the Deflategate case, which in February was only in its infancy.
“I was like, ‘I don’t know if there’s going to be enough with Deflategate,’ ” McCann said. “And it turned out to be really interesting, a lot of material.”
Yes, it certainly has. Particularly in New England, but really for anyone fascinated by collective bargaining, legal standards, and union/employer relationships.
This course isn’t about debating whether the Patriots deflated the footballs or whether the Colts are a bunch of crybabies.
It’s about introducing undergraduate students to various aspects of sports law: contract law, antitrust law, collusion, commissioner powers, agents and athlete representation, collective bargaining, and so on.
And Deflategate has provided McCann and UNH with an incredible real-world example to teach many of these concepts, from New York federal judge Richard Berman ruling that NFL commissioner Roger Goodell violated his powers under the CBA, to Brady’s rights as a member of a union, to Brady’s chances of succeeding in a defamation lawsuit, and much more.
“This is really a labor law story that is in a sports context,” said McCann, who writes about sports legal matters for Sports Illustrated. “I know it’s called Deflategate, but I want to make sure people know it’s a real class and it’s not an easy A. There are a lot of legal issues. It isn’t easy, and it isn’t that fun.”
The beauty of framing a class around Deflategate is twofold. For one, it’s an ongoing saga, giving McCann an opportunity to teach the case and its concepts in real time. McCann assigns pertinent articles and legal briefs as they publish, most recently doing so last Tuesday when the NFL filed its appeal brief in the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
And two, Deflategate is obviously a topic of great intrigue here in Patriots country.
“There’s nothing better than learning law through sports,” said Ethan Beals, a sophomore from Hudson, N.H. “It’s hard for me to consider it ‘learning’ because I’m not sitting down and studying like I would be for my engineering classes. I’m reading what I would be reading, anyway.”
McCann reviewed his first midterm exam with the class last Wednesday. Topics included collusion, the concept of “actual malice,” the infamous contract Ricky Williams signed with the Saints that was negotiated by rapper Master P, the Curt Flood Act, and, of course, the findings in Deflategate. He’ll have another midterm and a final exam before the course ends in December.
But INCO 460 is much more than lectures and tests, as McCann has brought in an impressive list of speakers to class. One of Brady’s attorneys, David Greenspan, was a guest a few weeks ago. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King came last week and invited UNH’s quarterback to see if he could feel the difference among three footballs inflated to 11.5, 12.5, and 13.5 pounds per square inch (he correctly identified each football, but said he could not tell a difference).
Next week, McCann will have three scientists come in: an MIT professor of robotics, a UNH physics professor, and a UNH engineering professor to talk about the football-testing procedures and the science experiments conducted in the Ted Wells Report. Later this month will be Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy and league affairs.
The lessons learned have been invaluable for anyone pursuing a legal career or simply wanting to win an argument with friends.
“I actually went to UConn to visit my friends who aren’t Patriots fans, and I brought my notebook with me so I could back up my argument,” said Beals, who still believes that the Patriots weren’t deflating their footballs. “The general population doesn’t understand the facts of the case. There’s no way that this wasn’t mishandled by the NFL.”
Wednesday night was a panel discussion centering on the media coverage of Deflategate. I was one of four guests, along with ESPN The Magazine’s Seth Wickersham, who wrote an in-depth investigative piece connecting the Patriots’ harsh punishments for Deflategate to the belief that other NFL owners feel the Patriots got off easy for Spygate; Sports Illustrated executive editor B.J. Schecter; and attorney Alan Milstein, who has written extensively about Deflategate and is leading a class-action lawsuit against daily fantasy sports websites DraftKings and FanDuel.
Not every student was into it, but there was a lot of discussion about whether the media blew the story out of proportion, how anonymous sources get vetted, whether ESPN and Chris Mortensen had any biases against the Patriots, whether Robert Kraft should have accepted the team penalties, and some of the missteps made by Goodell and the NFL.
Of course, the most ardent participants in the discussion were not college students at all, but the handful of local residents auditing the class. Charles McClain, a 72-year-old retired IBM database security analyst from Lee, still wants to see some proof that the Patriots did anything to the footballs that night.
“He knows it more than me,” quipped McCann. “He’s read every page twice.”
Chris Overka, a 39-year-old painter from Nashua, enjoys learning about Deflategate and applying the teachings to other real-world union cases.
“It’s easy to look at them as spoiled athletes, but even this Brady case can affect maybe a union at Market Basket, something like that,” he said.
Daniel Pearson, a 62-year-old organic chemist, drives an hour from Bedford each week to sit in.
“I’m a scientist, ideal gas law, all that stuff,” said Pearson. “So as soon as I saw the 10.1 number I did the calculations and I said, ‘Brady is [in trouble].’ Then when the real numbers came out, I redid the calculations, and, ‘Wait a minute, this isn’t right.’
“This class is making me think about things more on the legal side. What’s opened my eyes is how wide-ranging sports law can be, all the way from labor to contracts to you name it.”
One student asked the panel why media organizations that do serious journalism also sometimes post click-bait on their websites: swimsuit photos, slideshows, funny memes, and so on.
“It’s OK to have both,” said Wickersham. “People don’t come to our websites for homework.”
“Except this class!” McCann responded.