Whether or not one is a sports fan, I feel it is important to take a look at the National Football League’s (NFL) Deflategate scandal, in which the New England Patriots were penalized for allegedly deflating footballs, and star quarterback Tom Brady was suspended four games. Brady’s appeal of his suspension is being heard today by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. The reason to pay attention is that the allegation of deflating footballs is obviously false on a scientific basis. Yet the NFL has moved forward with punishment, and in the court of public opinion, nearly 70% of poll respondents believe Brady is a cheater based on this episode. This type of broad public misperception is similar to so many examples in medicine, such as the belief that T therapy is associated with increased cardiovascular risks, even when the data strongly suggest the opposite.
The Deflategate episode was investigate by attorney Ted Wells on behalf of the NFL, and it was the Wells report that provided the basis for the NFL penalties against Brady and the Patriots. The Wells report is a classic example of how evidence can be manipulated or distorted to create a desired narrative. Authors highlight what fits their story, and ignore or de-emphasize awkward, contradictory facts, counting on the reluctance of others to examine the primary data because it’s too tedious, boring, or difficult to understand. After carefully reviewing the evidence, it is immediately obvious that there is no evidence- none- that the Patriots deflated footballs during the playoff game against the Colts on January 18, 2015, won by the Patriots by a score of 45-7. The Wells report is a hot, sticky mess of nonsense.
Below are 6 key items from the Wells report that have gone unnoticed or unreported, each of which should make any reader doubt the validity of the Wells conclusions. According to referee Walt Anderson, prior to the game the Patriots balls were all close to 12.5 psi and the Colts balls close to 13.0 psi.
1. The Patriots football intercepted by the Colts was at exactly the correct pressure.
In the second quarter the Colts intercepted a Patriots football and reported to NFL officials the pressure was below the acceptable range of 12.5-13.5 psi. This prompted the half-time investigation of Patriots and Colts balls, and the subsequent Wells report. However, since colder temperatures reduce ball pressure, there should have been no surprise that the pressure was lower than starting pressure, since balls were measured before the game at room temperature, approximately 68-70F, and it was 48F outside during the second quarter. How low should the pressure have been? An experiment by Wells’ science consultants with official NFL footballs showed that when a ball inflated to just under 12.6 psi at 70F is exposed to 50F temperature for more than 20 minutes, its pressure drops to 11.5 psi. This value, 11.5 psi, is the most important statistic in the entire Deflategate saga. What was the average pressure of the intercepted Patriots ball, after three measurements by the Colts? 11.5 psi! This fact does not appear in the Wells report.
2. The average pressure of Patriots footballs at halftime was exactly correct by one of two possible gauges used to set pressures prior to the game.
At halftime, the pressures of all 11 available Patriots footballs were measured by two NFL officials using the two pressure gauges brought to the game by referee Walt Anderson. Mr. Anderson is uncertain which gauge he used prior to the game, and later it was determined that one gauges consistently provided lower values than the other. Patriot balls were measured within the first few minutes after returning to the locker room, when pressures would be expected to reflect the cooler playing temperature of 48F. The average pressure of the 11 Patriots footballs as measured by one official, Dyrol Prioleau, was 11.5 psi, using the gauge Walt Anderson believes he used prior to the game. The other gauge provided a reading only 0.4 psi lower, a small difference within the range of error. As noted previously, the value of 11.5 psi is exactly the expected pressure for a properly inflated football at 12.5 psi exposed to game conditions on that day. This fact does not appear in the Wells report.
3. Colts balls were less deflated than Patriots balls because they were measured after warming.
A key argument in the Wells report was that the drop in pressure of Patriots balls was greater than the drop in pressure of Colts balls. However, the balls were measured under different conditions. At halftime in the officials’ locker room, Patriots balls were measured within the first few minutes, when the balls were cold and pressures would be low. Colts balls were measured later, after they had time to warm up, when pressures would be higher. How much time is needed to make a difference? According to data from Wells’ science consultants, it takes only 10 minutes at 70F for balls to return to baseline pressure, a few minutes longer if balls were damp. The balls were in the locker room for 13.5 minutes. Colts balls must have been measured towards the end of that period, as Wells writes that only 4 of the 12 available Colts balls were measured because halftime was ending. The lower decline in pressure in Colts’ balls is entirely explained by the fact that they were warmer. The Wells report neglects to mention this critical fact.
4. Unless Colts footballs are immune to the laws of nature, every Colt ball was under the accepted pressure range during the game.
Wells states that halftime measurements showed that every Patriots football was under the accepted pressure range, yet all 4 Colts footballs were within range based on at least one of the two gauges. This statement is enormously misleading. As noted above, Colts balls were measured after warming, and they started at a higher pressure (13.0 psi) than Patriots footballs (12.5 psi). However, based on experiments by Wells’ science consultants, the drop in football pressure should have been approximately 1.0 psi due to game-time temperature of approximately 50F. This means that every Colts balls would have been at approximately 12.0 psi, ie, below the accepted range, if measured during game conditions.
5. NFL officials were unaware that temperature substantially influences football pressure.
This can be easily inferred by the following observations. First, the NFL rule stating that pressure must be between 12.5 and 13.5 psi does not specify the temperature at the time of measurement. A mere 10F difference, eg, from a cool room at 66F to a warm room at 76F, causes a difference of 0.5 psi. Second, the Deflategate investigation was precipitated by finding a ball at less than 12.5 psi, even though this was the appropriate pressure for playing conditions of 50F. There is nothing in the Wells report to indicate officials knew some degree of reduced pressure was to be expected at cooler playing condition. Third, officials conducted the half-time measurements without any appearance of awareness that pressures would increase over time as balls warmed.
6. The NFL was wholly unprepared to conduct the Deflategate investigation.
How can conclusions regarding inappropriate pressures be made when the NFL has no reference information on the impact of playing conditions on football pressure, including temperature but also the potential impact of a 320lb lineman falling on the ball? When either one of two gauges could have been used to determine pre-game pressures, each of which provides different values? When NFL officials were unaware that the methods used to measure pressures at halftime would result in lower pressures for Patriots balls and higher pressures for Colts balls? Indeed, the entire exercise is laughable when one recognizes that a multi-million dollar investigation lasting 4 months is based entirely on the memory recall of 62-year old Walt Anderson for the pre-game football pressures for 24 separate footballs.
The Wells report shows clearly that Patriots balls were at exactly the right pressure for the temperature at which they were exposed during the game. This means there was no rules violation. And that therefore Tom Brady could not have been “generally aware” of wrongdoing, as he has been accused, since there was no wrongdoing.
What is disturbing about the Wells report is that it fails to mention the key information that would have caused this entire Deflategate saga to disappear, as it should have. It failed to mention that the intercepted Patriots ball, and the 11 Patriots balls measured at half-time, were all at the right pressure after being exposed to approximately 50F. The failure to note evidence contrary to one’s conclusions is a common method to persuade readers to believe something incorrect.
Instead of this, the Wells report focuses on a greater pressure decline for the Patriots balls compared with the decline observed for Colts balls. This is especially troubling, since the Colts balls were measured later, when they were warmer and nearly back to their baseline pressures, whereas the Patriots balls were measured when they were cold. To do these types of measurements under different conditions would lead to a grade of F if this were a high school science project. To be aware that the data are not comparable and yet to present them as if they were amounts to scientific dishonesty and questions of integrity. Although the NFL officials that performed the comparison may be excused because they were unaware that temperature substantially influences pressure, no such excuse is available to Wells and his team, since their science consultants reported on this extensively. This argument by Wells is empty, and frankly deceitful.
The only thing more surprising than the conclusions of the Wells report is how little the NFL appeared to know, or care, about the impact of playing conditions on football pressure.
We now know that a change in temperature of 20F leads to a change in football pressure of approximately 1.0 psi. This means that all Patriots and Colts balls were below “regulation” pressure of 12.5-13.5 psi during the game, played at just below 50F. It also means that balls measured at 13.0 psi in the locker room at room temperature would be approximately 11.0 psi at 30F, and psi could even fall into the 9s for a frigid game in Green Bay or another outdoor stadium in a cold climate. Any NFL quarterback who ever played in the cold has played with “underinflated” balls, including the prominent former NFL quarterbacks in the media who have criticized Tom Brady for Deflategate, including Mark Brunell and Troy Aikman.
Importantly, the converse is also true -- higher temperatures lead to higher pressures. Wouldn’t it be ironic if some team in the future accused the Patriots and Tom Brady for overinflating footballs on a hot day because of a pressure measurement greater than the top regulation value of 13.5 psi? All it would take is a ball sitting in the sun when the temperature is 88-90F. I’m just waiting for some team playing in Miami or Dallas to accuse the opposing team of this.
Deflategate could have, and should have, been dismissed as soon as the Colts told the NFL the intercepted ball was at 11.5 psi, since this was the appropriate pressure. Deflategate could have, and should have, been dismissed when it was found that one of the two possible game-day gauges showed a perfectly appropriate pressure of 11.5 psi for Patriots balls. However, ignorance leads to bizarre conclusions, and in this case the NFL was shockingly ignorant of how playing conditions affect ball pressure. How is it possible that the NFL doesn’t care enough about this issue to try to get it right?
The lessons of Deflategate are this. Ideology too often trumps science. Facts matter, but are much less interesting than scandal and gossip. The truth usually lies in the primary data, but few people bother looking at the actual evidence because it is often boring, tedious, or difficult to understand. In the field of testosterone therapy and cardiovascular risk, two very flawed papers alleging risk gained enormous media attention, whereas the dozens of reassuring articles are barely noticed.
In this case, one of the most accomplished sports figures of this century, with a previously unblemished record of good behavior, has been found guilty of something that never happened. His reputation is forever tarnished due to a false dominant narrative. Sports may not be life and death, and one can argue, “So what? Brady has made millions from football.” Yet the real victim here is Truth, and Science. Facts matter. If not, we are no better than a teeming mob, vulnerable to demagogues and charlatans. And in medicine, the abandonment of Reason and Skepticism may truly be an issue of life and death.