The NFL is now in Day Four of its latest scandal, the controversy over whether the New England Patriots cheated in the AFC Championship game by using footballs that weren’t properly inflated. The news that the Pats may have under-inflated their footballs to make it easier for quarterback Tom Brady to throw, and for his receivers to catch, in Sunday’s cold weather broke shortly after the game and spiraled out of control thereafter, when ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that 11 of the 12 balls the team provided for the game were below the air pressure threshold the league requires.
The NFL said it was “distraught” and “angry” about the news, while Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, whose team was implicated in another cheating scandal in 2007, said at a Thursday press conference that he had no idea how it happened before tersely deflecting questions. It has led to calls that Belichick and Brady be suspended for the Super Bowl, or even that the Patriots should be pushed out in favor of the Indianapolis Colts. It is never-ending, and because it is the Patriots, because it is a dead week before the Super Bowl, and because it gives the New York Post and everyone else a chance to write funny headlines, it is everywhere.
If all of this coverage seems absurd in the light of much more significant scandals the NFL has faced this year and in those recently past, it should. There are plenty of more significant issues to talk about, including the NFL’s ongoing concussion crisis and its handling of domestic violence. As the season draws to an end, there are issues to raise about the hosting of the Super Bowl itself, and that despite plenty of preseason hoopla another season has passed without an openly gay player breaking into the league.
But that we’re spending our time before the Super Bowl talking about deflated footballs shouldn’t be shocking in the least, because after a season ripe with scandals and questions about the league’s integrity, there is one thing this one provides that none of the others could: it is easy.
A cheating scandal like this one doesn’t raise the difficult questions the other scandals bring. Cheating is inherent to sports, but it also cuts to the core of the belief that athletic contests are, at their heart, fair. So when a team like New England gets caught, it is easy to stake out a position against it and easy to think up a solution that seems to fit the crime, whether it’s a suspension, a fine, or something more serious. What a scandal like this one doesn’t require — what makes it so easy — is the reconsideration of the morals, or lack thereof, of the people playing in and running the league we love, or the difficult questions about how to fix the problem and move forward. And most of all, a scandal like this doesn’t require us to ask those moralistic questions of ourselves, to reconsider our own role in the spectacle. There are no questions here about whether we should turn away from the game forever, whatever our reason for doing so might be.
There is no need to balance concerns about the long-term health of players’ brains with a love of the game that ruins them. No one has to deal with the failings of players like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson or commissioners like Roger Goodell. We don’t have to consider the tough questions about reforms to the NFL’s conduct policy or the more intricate issues about how it should deal with domestic violence. Fans don’t have to worry that their favorite NFL team might pack up and leave if they don’t hand the owner taxpayer money he doesn’t need, or that Glendale’s mayor just admitted that his city was going to lose money hosting the Super Bowl. We don’t have to debate whether a team’s name is offensive enough to cause change; whether Michael Sam was left off a roster because he was gay; whether Russell Wilson’s head was properly evaluated or not.
Instead, this type of scandal gives everyone an easy punching bag — easier still when it’s Belichick, Brady, and the Patriots — and an easy outcome: if the NFL finds substantive evidence the Pats cheated, it will punish them somehow. If it doesn’t, there are at least sensible rule changes that can be made instead. In the meantime, we have funny donuts and Twitter ads instead of petition drives and brain injury research centers.
It isn’t that cheating is inconsequential. It’s just that cheating in this manner is confined to the sport itself, with little consequence beyond it. It allows fans and those who are paid to do so to yell and scream and turn the entire thing into a borderline charade. It is safe and it is simple.
The NFL couldn’t have drawn up a better distraction to end the scandal-plagued 2014–2015 season if it tried. DeflateGate — or Ballghazi, or whatever name one prefers — is enough of an issue that it could dominate the news for the next 10 days, shielding the league from questions about all the other issues that have faced it this year. It is serious enough in the eyes of fans and the league that it will give Goodell a reason to act decisively in some manner or another, precisely in a way he hasn’t in the others. But it is also light-hearted and ridiculous enough — quick, make another joke about Tom Brady’s balls! — that it won’t actually matter: columnists can pontificate about the cloud this will cast over the Super Bowl or the Patriots dynasty, but a hundred million Americans will still be in front of their TVs watching football next Sunday.
This scandal is inconsequential compared to every other major issue that has faced the NFL this year. But it will continue to capture everyone’s attention in the days before the Super Bowl, if only because it asks the least of everyone to actually fix.