The New England Patriots, Deflategate, and a More Honest Concern

On his weekday radio talk show in January of 2015, former Carolina Panthers general manager Marty Hurney addressed the controversy regarding 11 of 12 footballs being under-inflated during the AFC Championship Game. He said, “To me, this isn’t about ‘Deflategate.’ This isn’t about anything having to do about any particular game last week. And it certainly isn’t fodder to get by the first week before the Super Bowl. . . . This is about a culture. Is there a culture of cheating at probably what most people look at as the best franchise in the National Football League?”

Hurney and others need to reframe the question. They should be asking, “Isn’t bending or breaking the rules in NFL games just a reflection of a more ubiquitous, severe, and willfully ignored problem that should be either accepted or eradicated in an informed and completely transparent manner?” They should then add, “And those who cast sanctimonious aspersions on anyone in the NFL accused of cheating must share in the blame.”

A three-letter acronym underscores this point: HGH. In 1980, only 3 NFL players weighed as much as 300 pounds. That number had risen to 360 by 2014. This prodigious increase wasn’t spawned from some anomalous evolutionary mutation. To a great extent, it resulted from athletes taking performance enhancing drugs of all kinds, but especially human growth hormone, because many of them know they have to in order to compete at the highest levels of high school, college, and professional sports. Everyone in the NFL knows this. Pittsburgh’s Mean Joe Green was the most feared defensive tackle of the ’70s, at least in many offensive linemen’s eyes. He weighed 275 pounds. Today, that same Joe Green would probably get thrashed by the procession of 305-350 pound offensive linemen he would have to face every game.

The NFL finally got around to adopting a blood testing procedure for HGH in 2014, which is the epitome of negligence, but as Travis Tygart, the CEO of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, says, “You pretty much have to be a fool to test positive.” This makes one wonder why the league even bothered implementing the procedure. The obvious answer seems to be that those in charge did so for the sake of appearances, not to discourage criminal activity, and let’s be clear—distribution and use of human growth hormone without a prescription is illegal. On the other hand, no one will be going to prison anytime soon for deflating footballs.

True, most people consider following clearly defined rules a moral imperative, and maybe one or more people in the New England Patriots organization broke a clearly defined rule. Who really knows at this point? We’ll have to wait and see. Either way, from childhood, most of us are trained like lab rats to follow simple guidelines like this. But humans aren’t lab rats. They’re smarter than that, which means they need to address broader and more complex topics in order to live with integrity and keep certain issues in perspective. It’s time to admit that most fans don’t want to return to a game with smaller, slower, and weaker players who take much longer to recover from injury. The speed and violence of football are what fill stadiums. Hectoring a team over under-inflated footballs is a reductive, microcosmic act. Those worried about the state of professional athletics need to pay attention to the more impactful issues hitting much closer to home.