Article Jan 29, 2015

"Deflate-gate" and over-inflated outrage

Slate magazine hailed 2014 as “The Year of Outrage.” It appears that Americans are determined to continue the trend into 2015. Since the morning of January 19, the national media has been hijacked by a controversy nicknamed “Deflate-gate” on social media. By the amount of coverage the controversy has received, you would think deflate-gate was a legitimate national crisis. The story has been covered by every media outlet from NPR to TMZ and even reached the culturally iconic status of being parodied on Saturday Night Live.

What is deflate-gate? On January 18, the New England Patriots trounced the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in an NFL playoff game to secure a spot in the Super Bowl against the Seattle Seahawks. The Patriots are being accused of slightly deflating the footballs that were used by them in the first half of the game. Doing so on a cold, wet night might have provided Tom Brady, the Patriots quarterback, a slight advantage in gripping the football and his receivers a slight advantage in catching them. Of course, it may have also provided D’Qwell Jackson of the Colts a slight advantage in securing an interception against Brady in the second quarter of the game. It is also true that a slightly under-inflated football will decelerate a bit faster, which would be problematic on longer throws.

Rule 2 of the NFL rulebook provides the following guidelines for game day footballs:

The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 ½ to 13 ½ pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind.

The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game.

Each team will make 12 primary balls available for testing by the Referee two hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game to meet League requirements. The home team will also make 12 backup balls available for testing in all stadiums. In addition, the visitors, at their discretion, may bring 12 backup balls to be tested by the Referee for games held in outdoor stadiums.

In the event a home team ball does not conform to specifications, or its supply is exhausted, the Referee shall secure a proper ball from the visitors and, failing that, use the best available ball.

A quarterback’s preferences

Tom Brady has said in the past that he prefers footballs on the lower side of the inflation specifications. That is a fact of which clubhouse personnel who handle the footballs for the Patriots are no doubt acutely aware. It is also evident by the NFL procedural guidelines that the league wants the quarterbacks to play with footballs they are comfortable with. If the NFL was not interested in accommodating the quarterbacks, they could ensure that there is never a deflate-gate controversy again simply by having the referees bring brand new footballs to the game and have both teams use them without ever handling them prior to the game. NFL employed ball boys and referees could exclusively handle the balls during the game.

Eric Kester, a former ball boy for the Chicago Bears recently explained that factory fresh footballs are delivered to the teams several days before the game and the quarterbacks attempt to customize the ball to their liking. He explains:

This involves scrubbing them with stiff horsehair brushes to rub off the leather’s slippery silicone sheen and occasionally inflating or deflating the balls a very small amount, which I believe is legal to a degree. Quarterbacks are very particular about the way the ball feels in their hand, and we worked meticulously to match their particular preferences. (NBC News)

The NFL’s hypocrisy

Kester also explains that about two hours before kickoff, the balls are taken to the referees’ locker room for inspection. In his experience, this usually amounted to the referees squeezing them and examining the laces. According to Kester, though the referees had a pump in the locker room they rarely used it and he never saw a ball rejected. The NFL procedure is obviously accommodating to quarterbacks. The NFL fine for tampering with the footballs is $25,000. That is an insignificant amount by NFL financial standards and seems to reflect that they do not believe that it is an issue that challenges the competitive integrity of the game.

If there is any outrage to be offered in this situation, it should be properly directed at the NFL for hypocrisy. A few years ago, Richard Land, then president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said those addressing the immigration controversy in America need to realize, “The reality has been that too often, those who desire to enter our country illegally have encountered two apparently contradictory signs at our border: one saying ‘No Trespassing’ and the other saying ‘Help Wanted.’” The NFL is procedurally permissive about the preparation of the footballs and then adopts a strict tone for the sake of public relations when something becomes controversial.

It is a shame that under-inflated footballs have been the lead story when the actual football games have been simply astounding. Presumably the under-inflated balls were used only in the first half of the Patriots game against the Colts and not the second. So how did Brady do with properly inflated footballs? In the second half he was 12 for 14, for 131 yards, two touchdowns and the Patriots outscored Indianapolis 28-0. As the Colts’ tight end Dwayne Allen tweeted, “They could have played with soap for balls and beat us. Simply the better team.” In the other NFL playoff game, Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, engineered one of the most improbable comebacks in NFL history. After throwing four interceptions, Wilson and the Seahawks erased a 16-0 deficit to stun the Green Bay Packers. Even so, the dominant conversation surrounding the NFL playoffs heading to the Super Bowl is about the PSI of footballs.

America’s outrage culture

This is merely one small example of the unhealthy, but pervasive, perpetual outrage culture in America. We seem to be losing the ability to discuss anything with a sense of proper proportion. Too often in sports, politics, culture, and in everything else, we simply pick a side and defend it without question, and we vilify the other side without question. Professional wrestling used to have the market cornered on an over-exaggerated portrayal of heroes and villains with manufactured emotion and outrage, but it seems like every topic in America now sounds something akin to an episode of WrestleMania. Subtlety, nuance, and proportion are always labeled compromise in this outrage climate.

Since 2001, the New England Patriots have qualified for postseason play twelve times, reached the Super Bowl game six times, and they have won it three times. In the uber-competitive world of the NFL, with paper-thin margins between winning and losing, their success is a dynastic consistency. The media-awkward, evil football-genius persona of Bill Belichick and the golden-boy perfection of Tom Brady make them easy villains for non-Patriot fans. Nevertheless, slightly under-inflated footballs have not been the key to their success, and it is silly to suggest otherwise. If the Patriots knowingly under-inflated eleven footballs, then they should be penalized accordingly, but that should be the end of the story. There will not be a Deflate-gate movie in the future because this is a manufactured crisis not a real one.

I wish I could argue that Christians in America have been immune to the perpetual outrage culture, but we have not. I once confronted a Christian about passing around an obviously bogus article and photo-shopped picture of president Obama on social media only to have him shrug it off as no big deal because the president was so obviously wrong on vital social issues. In his mind his outrage condoned his actions. He was totally blind to the tragic irony that he was arguing truth is irrelevant when it came time to defend the truth. When we go down that road, we no longer have truth—just sides. The mission of Christ calls us to truth and proportion. Thus, James admonishes, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19-20).