Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Going to The Wells Once Too Often

I began this post as a response to a report on ESPNBoston related to the release of the Wells report. I have read the report and have several issues with some of its conclusions, as well as with the League's activities in response to concerns lodged by the Indianapolis Colts prior to the January 2015 AFC Championship game. The way the League's executives handled the situation, coupled with some inexplicable behavior from the Officiating crew, taints this investigation. This is a separate issue from whether the Patriots were (are) guilty of misconduct, but it further adds to the impression that there are foxes guarding the hen houses even as roosters are allowed to run amok. I have yet to read any statements issued by anybody involved since the release of the Wells report, including those from NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or Patriots owner Robert Kraft. So, for what it's worth, here's Part 1. I will follow up with my thoughts on the main players in this comedy -can't decide if it's an episode of The Keystone Cops starring NFL and Colts executives and the Officials' Walt Anderson as the cops or if it's more like The Dukes of Hazzard. At any rate, it's a comedy of errors.

First of all, saying "I'm not for sure (x will happen)" makes you sound "ignunt!" Just say I'm not sure. Second, if the NFL looks at the Colts game, and it's the only game in question, it's pretty obvious the balls were not a factor in the drubbing the Colts took. The Patriots scored half again as many points AFTER the ball issue was addressed. Thirdly, the NFL needs to revisit their own procedures; it's obvious that their own rules were inadequately enforced. And not just BEFORE the game but also when the balls were checked AFTER THE COMPLAINT. If the rules spell out exact PSI, that should be the standard, not "ticks" under or over. Chalk that up to the NFL and the officials. Fourth, be real. Deflating the balls may be against the rules but comparing it to BOUNTYGATE? Seriously? That's like comparing running a red light to hiring a hitman. Well, that's kind of an exaggeration but the point is valid. Certainly this taints Brady's image. (I don't think anybody's worried about Belichik's image! LOL) And it may bring into question Kraft's propensity to turn a blind eye (the man is too successful to think he's as unaware as he seems to want people to believe) to possible character flaws in his stars. (Aaron Hernandez, anyone?) 

All that said, as a die hard Pats fan, I'm really wary of all the "it's more probable than not" and "likely generally aware" phrases littered in Wells' report. While I'm open to the possibility -okay, probability- that the balls may not have fit the strict PSI range, I'm not convinced without a doubt that they were DEflated after being approved. If Brady wanted a certain PSI it would seem to me they'd be more likely to UNDERinflate the balls BEFORE submission, knowing the officials were likely just giving them a "feel" test rather than using any scientific method to check and record each test. You know, like using a cheapo air guage from Modell's and a notebook from Staples. Cuz that would be hard. (Speaking of hard, let us not forget the other great quarterback currently active, Aaron Rodgers, who admitted he has his guys OVERinflate the balls, because harder footballs are his preference, and apparently it's common knowledge that with some officiating crews the balls wouldn't be accurately tested. Oh, and remember the former Super Bowl QB who paid thousands of dollars to guys to adjust the balls' pressure. Obviously the NFL has a problem.) 

At first consideration one has to give Wells credit for being willing to release a report unfavorable to the Pats but also to the NFL. If anything it brings into the forefront the point that the NFL has some serious problems with how it enforces its own rules. Public relations continues to be a nightmare for the NFL, not just because of this but because this is just another black mark against its image. It seems the NFL is incapable of corporate responsibility, of enforcing its own policies, in a fair manner, and of controlling players' behavior. That doesn't excuse those committing violations, but it does prove that in the National Football League, a conglomerate worth TENS of BILLIONS of dollars (two major under-performers of 32 franchises each sold in the past couple of years for an average of $1B - do the math), nobody has complete control of the reins.

Those of us who are Patriots fans have to question how much we are willing to accept certain behaviors before withdrawing our support. For me, at least, Deflategate isn't enough. I see it as breaking the rules but, in the parlance of basketball, I see it as a violation rather than a foul. (Bountygate would be a flagrant foul, cause for ejection.) In football terms, I can't even compare it to an unintentional vs intentional facemask penalty. In my mind it just doesn't meet that level of misconduct. I don't see it as an advantage except as a a psychological advantage to the quarterback. 

Those who are what Pats fans lovingly call "haters" will ignore all the "more probable than not" qualifiers in the report and just see the incident as "more proof the Patriots are cheaters." Many will claim the Pats should be stripped of the Super Bowl Championship and that it should be awarded to the Seattle Seahawks. That would be a penultimate example of "cruel and unusual punishment not befitting the crime." There are many reasons why this would be the wrong thing to do, not the least of which is the fact ball pressure was not an issue in the Super Bowl. Also, that would unjustly reward the Seahawks, who were not affected by the incident in question. So, then, would the Super Bowl be replayed, between the Seahawks and the Indianapolis Colts, the team who lost to the Patriots? That wouldn't really be appropriate. Many Colts players were quoted acknowledging that the Patriots were the better team that day and that ball inflation was not a factor in the pounding they took. So if the game was replayed and the Colts somehow beat the Seahawks, the Colts would be unjustly rewarded because even they knew they hadn't earned a trip to the Super Bowl. It's all moot, anyway, because obviously the game cannot be replayed months later. Not only are teams not ready, they aren't even the same teams, as the make-up of players and coaches has changed with trades, retirements, etc. And the lowest level of haters, those who would force the Patriots to vacate all their titles, from division to Super Bowl championships, are just downright delusional. There are those who say the first instance of cheating can be traced to the "Tuck Rule" game, that neither Belichick nor Brady would have seen the success they've had if not for that one play. I'm almost even embarrassed to address that, but there are enough people who make that claim that it bears mentioning. And ridicule. Because it IS ridiculous. Enough on that.

Those who are neither fanatics nor haters of the Patriots and can look at this issue objectively will see that there is a problem with the Patriots system, and that cannot be denied. Their MO seems to be to constantly be pushing the boundaries to see what kind of advantages they can gain, whether it's a direct advantage over an opponent or a psychological advantage for their own players, they obviously aren't afraid to walk a tightrope, even if they sometimes fall off. They aren't afraid to get caught crossing the line, but the lines they've crossed have, really, only been minor infractions. 

Every "cheating" accusation leveled at the Patriots has been the result of activity practiced by most all other teams. That doesn't excuse it. Not at all. But it points to an institutionalized problem that goes along with any high stakes venture, and the big business that professional sports has become ranks right up there with any other high stakes venture that tempts and causes corporations to "cheat," to take short-cuts, to skirt or even break laws and regulations. In elite professional sports the financial rewards for teams and individual athletes are so high that it's almost natural that they would give in, at some level, to the temptation to gain whatever advantage they could, to get an edge over a competitor, or the clock, or whatever obstacle lays between them and success. The Patriots just happen to have a target on their back. There's no question they need to take responsibility for their own actions but it's obvious they have received special attention. 

Why does a billion dollar company dance around the rules? The rewards seem to be worth the risk. The level of risk seems to define one's character. Why else would an elite player like Tom Brady allegedly conspire with an equipment manager to violate the NFL's regs on ball pressure? Would such a minor change make that much difference in ball handling that it would affect the outcome of a game? Of a season full of games? Does it? It seems like a very small risk, relative to the big picture. And by small I mean not really much of a risk because it's not much of a violation. Not contrasted to the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs, like the Yankees' Alexander Rodriguez was suspended for. And certainly not on the level of violating the rules that Lance Armstrong took the use of PEDs and doping to, for which he was stripped of most of his cycling victories, including an unprecedented number of Tour de France wins. 

As for the Wells Report, it almost raises more questions than it gives answers. A couple stand out. Reportedly there had been talk all season amongst other teams that the Patriots were taking air out of the footballs, and the Colts filed a specific (if unofficial) complaint making the League aware of the possibility the balls used in the Championship game would be tampered with. That information was made available to Walt Anderson, the game's referee, and he assured League management he would follow his own established procedures that included taking responsibility for the balls and overseeing their delivery to the field of play at game time, directly from the Officials' locker room, where supposedly there were kept under watch after having been tested and approved for use.

At half-time, when 23 of the 24 game balls were re-submitted for measurement to two alternate game officials, it was determined that every one of the remaining 11 balls being used by Brady and the Patriots offense registered less than the minimum PSI, as had the intercepted ball. (That ball, which triggered the official Colts complaint that  ic cRemember that those balls had all been measured before the game and, after two were adjusted by Anderson, every one met or slightly exceeded the 12.5 psi minimum. Interestingly, citing a time crunch, the officials rechecked only FOUR of the twelve Colts footballs. EVERY one of those balls, originally measured at or near (under and over)  13 psi, the middle of the allowable range, had lost pressure. Of even more interest, though, is that when the two officials rechecked the pressure on the Pats balls, the first official's measurements, without exception, were LOWER by an average of 0.4 psi. This is important for two reasons. First, it shows that the balls were under-inflated at half-time. BUT while it's likely the balls were under the 12.5 psi minimum that doesn't mean the under-inflation rate was 0.4 psi at the BEGINNING of the game. Second, it shows that the measurement varies depending either on who is checking the pressure or by the gauge being used. Oh, and the variance allowed by Rule 2 is ONLY 1 psi! Yet the DIFFERENCE between the half-time measurements is 0.4 (four/tenths) of that allowance. That means there is a 40% margin of error! That's huge! 

There's another issue raised by the official re-measurement of air pressure. Remembering that the first official's measurements were forty percent lower than the second officials when measuring all the footballs used by the Patriots offense, when checking only one-third of the balls used by the Colts the difference in measurements was THE OPPOSITE! The SECOND official's measurements were lower, again by 0.4 psi. So while the difference RATE was consistent at 40% of the allowable range, it's obvious that there is a human factor at play. In most comparisons a 40% margin of error would be considered unacceptable. This is especially important when it comes to applying specifications governing equipment used in a high-stakes competition in a business governed by rules. Yet a footnote (41) in the report states that one of the gauges used CONSISTENTLY registers a pressure "0.3-0.45  higher" than the other. Interestingly, when recording the measurements during three separate testings, before the game, at half-time, and immediately following the game, it was NOT noted which official used which gauge. This seems important because, again, the allowable range is only 1 psi yet, using those gauges, one official's measurement was destined to be off by 30-45% of the allowable margin. 

Lastly, the League, through the investigators, had hired a specialized scientific testing company to examine the evidence and simulate game-day conditions to determine if the balls had been tampered with. Much emphasis was placed on the temperature and humidity levels during the game. Less attention seemed to be paid to the actual USE of the balls. This factor was briefly mentioned and ruled out as having much, if any, impact on the loss of pressure. Now, I'm not a scientist and my experience with air pressure in sports equipment is limited to recreational use. And I've never inhaled the air from a football! But it seems to me that a ball that gets more use would lose pressure faster than one that "rides the bench." In this game the Patriots' time of possession, the amount of TIME their footballs were in use, was much greater than the Colts' TOP. In fact, at 37:49 - 22:11, in a sixty-minute game, the Patriots' 16:38 greater time of possession was half again longer than Indianapolis'. This is significant because, again, of the differences in the environment the balls were kept in, how much handling they received, how long they were exposed to the weather. When the charges were initially announced the internet community responded with a meme, an image coupled with a sarcastic caption, that showed Patriots very large tight end Rob "Gronk" Gronkowski spiking a football after executing a great play. The various captions alluded to the effect of "Gronking" on the ball's air pressure. That is, when Gronk used his might to spike the ball it would impact the ground with such force that it must have released some of the air! The Wells investigation concluded that such activity would not affect the air pressure, but I'm guessing nobody volunteered to be Gronked to actually test the theory.

The NFL needs to re-visit its own pollicies and procedures and those followed by officials. Since the League put the Patriots on notice in 2004 that their game day ball protocols were poorly executed it would seem the officials would have known to take more care in checking those balls in subsequent games. The head official during the Championship game is a 19-yr veteran and it's "more probable than not" that he would know about that incident. As well, that official, Walt Anderson, had been put on notice that there was speculation throughout the league and serious concern by the Colts that the Patriots tampered with the footballs to reduce the pressure, supposedly making the ball easier to grip. Yet Anderson, who specifically assured NFL executives, who had shared those concerns with him, that he would follow his customary procedures to ensure all balls used met League regulations, failed in those duties. This is significant because the Wells report, in describing Anderson, his experience and his work ethic, states that he "is widely recognized as exceedingly meticulous, diligent and careful." Except on this day he wasn't.

Indeed, according to Anderson, the Patriots balls were checked and a couple were under-inflated. Those were re-inflated and met the required 12.5-13.5 range when marked as approved for use. However, part of Anderson's routine was to have whoever was transporting the balls from the officials' locker room to the field to wait either for permission to transport the ball bag or for an official to oversee the transport. Despite the officials having been put on notice regarding the concerns of the Colts and the League about a potential tampering issue, McNally somehow removed the bag from the locker room and brought it to the field while unsupervised and without permission. Anderson was aware of that fact, yet did not question it despite admitting later that it was the first time in his career that he remembers that happening. Of course that can't be argued as contributing to the Patriots' actions. That would be akin to a burglar caught in the act blaming a security guard who altered his schedule of rounds for letting the burglary take place. The guard would have to answer to his employer, who might then alter its procedures, but the burglar must answer for his own actions. So in this case it appears that Anderson bears responsibility for not following established procedure and his own routine even after being told by League officials that a Patriots violation of League rules was "more probable than not." In this case both the official(s) and the League failed to prevent the alleged violation from taking place. One could argue that it's not their responsibility to PREVENT violations but only to act in response. If so, the officials could, should, have checked the air pressure on the first ball put into play by the Patriots. There was obviously credible suspicion that the pressure would be altered. It seems that the officials DO bear a responsibility to assure all game balls used by the Patriots were sufficiently inflated, and should not have put the onus on the Colts to lodge a complaint. The Colts were well within their rights to complain, especially given that the ball they took possession of as a result of an interception was reportedly under-inflated. That specific ball, however, was not re-tested at half-time because it has to be considered that the Colts equipment manager had ample opportunity to deflate the ball before submitting it for inspection. As well, that ball was not going to be used in the second half as the defensive player who intercepted it was going to keep it. (One of the reasons each team submits 12 balls for their offense to use is because balls used in memorable plays are often removed from play and given to players.) None of this excuses the fact the Patriots' game balls failed the half-time pressure check. 

Back to the previously mentioned warning issued to the Patriots: in 2004 there was an investigation of the Patriots oversight of game balls because one or more "practice balls" had been used during the game, having been given to the officials between downs by a one or more ball boys. McNally was in charge of the ball boys and getting the game balls to the field, as he was during the Colts game. There was no disciplinary action taken after that incident, though the Patriots were warned that a future incident could be deemed "a competitive violation." The Wells report specifically states that this reprimand and warning were NOT factors in their conclusions but mentioned in the report "for background and completeness." It seems that that means they mention it just to make it clear they were aware of it, but even so, that can be compared to a witness or attorney at trial making a statement they know is objectionable and the judge will rule it be disregarded. A classic example of not being able to "unring the bell." Despite the assertion that the use of practice balls was unintentional, and that the league did not take real action against the team, in the court of public opinion this will, of course, be used by Patriots detractors as "proof positive" the Patriots are cheaters and have been for many years. 

Okay, this is a decent stopping off point. Check back for Part 2 of the investigation into The Wells Report, to be followed by a response to the punishments announced by the League, Robert Kraft's answer to that, and chatter about the reactions from others.

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