Block & Tackle is John Teti’s column about pro football.
Deflategate, football’s frenzied media maelstrom of posturing and hurt feelings, nears its end this week. Yesterday the NFL released the Wells Report, the findings of a months-long investigation to determine how footballs came to be under-pressurized during the AFC Championship Game this January. The report “concluded that it is more probable than not that Jim McNally (the Officials Locker Room attendant for the Patriots) and John Jastremski (an equipment assistant for the Patriots) participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls after the balls were examined by the referee.” Investigator Ted Wells and colleagues at his elite law firm also wrote in the report’s executive summary that it’s “more probable than not that Tom Brady (the quarterback for the Patriots) was at least generally aware of the inappropriate activities of McNally and Jastremski.” It was not a good day for the Patriots.
The thorough, careful, and readable full report (PDF link) backs up Wells’ views. Yes, the findings are couched in uncertainty, but given the evidence, Occam’s razor produces a strong impression of wrongdoing by Patriots staff, unless you are using said razor to excise your frontal lobe. The report’s most notable exhibit, a series of text messages between Jastremski and McNally, is hilariously damning. In one exchange, McNally refers to himself as “the deflator,” as if he is some sort of masked villain who roams NFL sidelines, assaulting innocent sporting goods:
In another, Jastremski writes to McNally, “Can’t wait to give you your [presumably ball-deflating] needle this week,” adding a smiley face in emoticon form—an old-school choice that cruelly deprives us of an emoji in the Wells Report, which would have been a cherry on top of the scandal sundae:
These smoking-gun texts leave little room to question that New England employees screwed with footballs in an effort to please their lord and master Tom Brady. As for the notion that Brady knew about the specifics of the shenanigans, the evidence there is sketchier, hence the report’s assertion that he was “at least generally aware.” It’s the same way that Deanna Troi is always generally aware that the Romulan captain is hiding something: The knowledge is just vague enough to keep the story going.
The nondescript nature of Brady’s alleged involvement has not stopped the “legacy” doomsayers from coming out in full force, although our nation’s football moralizers disagree on the particular nature of the damage to Brady’s legacy. The New York Times’ Juliet Macur says that the fragile legend “takes a hit” with the news, while Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman says that it is “forever scarred.” Boston Globe pustule Dan Shaughnessy sticks with “taint” and “tarnish,” which are sportswriting’s most common legacy injuries—the pulled hamstrings of historical greatness.
Maybe the tale of Brady, one of the most accomplished athletes in NFL history, really will be derailed by transient hysteria over a nigh-imperceptible 0.7-PSI discrepancy in the pressure of a few footballs. Perhaps, too, George W. Bush’s adventures in Mesopotamia will someday be revered for their strategeric genius. The only honest thing commentators can say is that we don’t know. I mean, I’m obviously dubious, but the truth is that I have no idea what sort of historical judgment will coalesce around Tom Brady or anyone else. Legacies take a long time to form. That’s what makes them legacies. Pundits project into the future with the legacy argument when they realize that they don’t have a very strong case in the present. “It’s not me saying that Tom Brady is a monster! It’s history!” No, Shaughnessy, it’s just you, implicitly admitting that there’s not much here.
But there still is something here, something embarrassing and disappointing. Patriots fans are going to take their lumps in the coming days, and there’s not much they can do about it: Their quarterback messed up and shamed his team. I expect to take some flack, too, for defending my beloved Pats at the peak of the scandal. Why shouldn’t I? I believed that the team was probably innocent. I was wrong, and crying Mark Brunell was right. So let your buddies rub it in, New Englanders. It’s all in good fun anyhow, and if it’s not, you need better buddies.
Besides, in a twisted way, I’m happy that Deflategate happened. The two weeks between the AFC Championship and the Super Bowl, when the deflated-ball furor was so overheated, were a miserable stretch for a New England booster like me. In the first week, I must have typed and then trashed 10,000 words’ worth of Block & Tackle columns on the scandal. Each night I would come home from work, put my laptop on the little island in our kitchen, and start writing about deflated balls. At the end of the night I would throw my work away, disgusted with my unfunny, unhinged prose. My wife told me to stop torturing myself, seeing that Deflategate was pulling me into a cycle of obsession and self-hatred that she recognized. I recognized it, too, but I couldn’t help it. Only when an approaching deadline snapped me back into focus, as it often does, did I realize that I simply needed to have a sense of humor about Ballghazi.
Still, the hurt and resentment lingered, and it resurfaced during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Late in the game, Seattle receiver Jermaine Kearse made a ridiculous reception along the sideline to put the Seahawks in position for a win. “It is happening again,” I thought. “It is happening again.” Fate, in the form of yet another implausible catch, was intervening for the third time to deny New England a title. I pictured all the deflationists across the country splashing beer from their red Solo cups as they cheered the latest choke job by the evil, hated, cheating Patriots. Even at the time I was startled by the depth of my gloom over a sporting event that had, after all, featured dancing sharks.
Then Malcolm Butler intercepted that pass from Russell Wilson on the goal line, and the world filled with color. It was the most exciting moment of my life as a sports fan. I can’t imagine how it will ever be topped, and the truth is that I have Deflategate to thank. Without the contrast provided by its depths of despair, the pinnacle of victory wouldn’t have felt so high. I wouldn’t change a thing about the whole affair.
When I finally went to bed after the Super Bowl festivities wound down, I had a vision. I was in a rowboat with the Lombardi Trophy, lazily paddling away from a shore where all the Deflategate pundits were continuing to fret and fume. As I rowed, the bloviators grew smaller until they vanished, leaving only victory and calm.
Tom Brady earned the criticism and punishment he’s going to receive in the wake of the Wells Report’s shameful revelations. Brady and his teammates also earned that trophy, and no self-respecting student of the game can credibly claim otherwise—the practical substance of the PSI transgression is too minute. That said, if you want to join the piss-pants who assign totemic significance to a heretofore obscure pressure specification in the NFL rulebook, go right ahead. All the dizzy rage is harmless, it’s diverting, and maybe it’s even justified. I could be wrong to remain a proud Patriots fan. I’ll think about that on my boat.