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What we’ve learned from 500 days of Deflategate

Tom Brady’s handling of the footballs is at the center of Deflategate — but little light has been shed on that. Elise Amendola/Associated Press/File 2015

The Indianapolis 500 is held every Memorial Day weekend. This year, we have a different kind of 500 — the Deflategate 500.

Yes, the nonsensical, never-ending soap opera that is Deflategate hits 500 days old Wednesday. What began as a curiosity the day after the Patriots thrashed the Colts, 45-7, in the AFC Championship game on Jan. 18, 2015, has morphed into the legal sports drama of the decade, headlined by former US Solicitors General, MIT physicists, and, most recently, “Goat Boy,” a.k.a. C list comedian Jim Breuer.

And Deflategate could find its Fountain of Youth should Tom Brady get his request for a rehearing accepted by the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Heck, we might have 500 more days to go before this thing is settled.


A bit of Deflategate fatigue is setting in here in New England, and the rest of the country is downright comatose. “Enough is enough,” is all I hear from people on the street. A final resolution can’t come soon enough.

But we should all be grateful for Deflategate. Forget for a minute the first-round pick that the NFL swiped from the Patriots and the four-game suspension hanging over Brady’s head, and think about what an incredible educational tool this ordeal has been.

Remove the passion and emotion, and Deflategate has taught us so much about science, law, and the intricacies of the NFL’s operation.

Deflategate has taught us . . .

■   About the NFL’s football specificities. I had covered the NFL for six seasons and had never once thought to look up the league’s guidelines for its game balls.

Very quickly we learned that each football needs to be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch; that each team provides its own footballs, with its own logo on the ball; that each team provides 12 footballs per game, plus 12 backup footballs for potential bad-weather games; that teams are allowed to practice with their own footballs during the week to break them in; that the referee is supposed to test every football with an air gauge before the game, and initial the balls that are approved for play; that the referees didn’t record any PSI data, and probably didn’t check the pregame inflation levels half the time; and that a team employee is supposed to be escorted to the field with the game balls, but that probably didn’t happen very often, either.


■  About the Ideal Gas Law. Deflategate did what high school physics class couldn’t — make the Ideal Gas Law fun and easy to understand. How many more people now understand that your car tires deflate in cold winter weather, and inflate when they heat up? In all seriousness, Deflategate has been a valuable public service announcement for winter drivers. Not to mention, we learned that footballs in cold-weather games decrease by at least 1 PSI, and probably closer to 2 PSI in below-freezing weather.

■  About the NFL’s rigged system of justice. Innocent until proven guilty? Not in the NFL. Once a Colts ballboy stuck an air gauge into a Patriots football on the sideline, Troy Vincent and other NFL executives had determined that the Patriots were guilty of cheating, without understanding how the Ideal Gas Law works.

Then someone from the NFL offices incorrectly told ESPN reporter Chris Mortensen that all 11 of the Patriots’ footballs were 2 PSI under the limit, creating a national firestorm right before the Super Bowl and forcing Roger Goodell to launch an “independent” investigation led by famed attorney and friend of the league, Ted Wells.


Except the investigation was anything but independent, as should be expected when the NFL foots the bill. Wells acted like the league’s prosecutor in interviews with Brady and other members of the Patriots organization, crafting a report around a predetermined conclusion of guilt. Exponent, the consulting firm hired to analyze the PSI data, skewed the results in the NFL’s favor, as it once did with second-hand smoke and Big Tobacco.

Goodell, at the urging of several NFL owners upset that the Patriots didn’t get punished severely enough for Spygate, dropped the hammer on the Patriots and Brady. He mischaracterized Brady’s testimony at the appeal to help justify the penalty, then upheld the four-game suspension without having much direct evidence of a ball-deflation scheme.

■   That the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement probably allows Goodell to do all of that. This is still being argued in court. But the NFL Players Association signed off on a document that allows Goodell to be the hearing officer in appeals of player conduct, and the courts usually interpret that to mean Goodell has wide-ranging powers to rule as he sees fit, so long as his punishment takes its essence from the CBA.

And the NFL’s insistence of calling it an independent investigation was for PR purposes only; there is nothing in the CBA that requires Goodell to be fair and consistent.


It’s not a great system, but the NFL is a private business, not the government.

■  All about the federal court system. How many of us who don’t have our JD understood how a federal lawsuit works? We learned about argument briefs, response briefs, the random judge selection, what an arbitrator is and isn’t allowed to do, that the Second Circuit doesn’t allow electronics into the courtroom (time to join the rest of us in the 21st century, please), the deference generally afforded to arbitration hearings, and that you can usually determine how a case is going to be ruled based on the line of questioning from the judge.

We then learned all about the US Court of Appeals — the random selection of the three-judge panel, the difference between active and senior judges, and the relatively quick process in which all of it occurs, with just one hour in court.

Those of us who aren’t political junkies learned the names Paul Clement and Ted Olson. We learned about the “en banc” process, and how the Second Circuit is notorious for not accepting en banc appeals.

Soon enough, we might learn everything there is to know about the Supreme Court petition process.

The one thing about Deflategate we still don’t really know with absolute certainty? Whether or not the Patriots deflated those footballs.


Ben Volin can be reached at Follow him on Twitter@BenVolin.