Ted Wells Strikes Back
Many times before, Ted Wells’ publicity has been limited to the name on the front of a report, content to let the document pages speak for themselves. Not this time.
Six days after Wells’ report on the inflation level of footballs the Patriots used in the AFC Championship Game was released, and one day after the NFL levied stern penalties against the team and quarterback Tom Brady, Wells fired back publicly at criticisms of his impartiality and the report’s conclusions in a conference call on Tuesday afternoon.
“It is wrong to criticize my independence,” Wells asserted, “just because you disagree with my findings.”
Tuesday’s call was another reminder that Wells’ latest report on an NFL scandal, this one more than 100 days in the making, did not mark the end of the Deflategate saga. Rather, this is the beginning of what is shaping up to be a very public, very ugly fight between the league and its reigning Super Bowl champion.
Brady will defend his integrity. Wells (notably, with the backing of the NFL) will defend his report, which concluded that it was “more probable than not” that the Patriots deliberately circumvented the league’s rules of play and that Brady was at least “generally aware” of these inappropriate activities. The line in the sand has been drawn, and there is no turning back for either side.
Wells spoke with the national media on a conference call set up and moderated by NFL senior vice president of communications Greg Aiello. Wells did not talk to the media after his report on the Dolphins’ bullying scandal in 2013, nor did he after investigations of NBA Player Association Executive Director Billy Hunter on behalf of the union, or the sexual assault allegations against former Syracuse University assistant basketball coach Bernie Fine.
“This is the first time that, after I have issued my report, I find somebody is questioning my independence and suggesting I was influenced by the league office,” Wells said. “But for those personal attacks, I would not have responded. I think those attacks are out of bounds, unfair and just plain wrong.”
After Wells’ report was released, Patriots owner Robert Kraft released a statement saying it would be a “gross understatement” to say his team was disappointed in its findings, while Brady’s agent, Don Yee, took to the airwaves to defend his client’s honor. The penalties issued by the NFL yesterday—a four-game suspension for Brady, a $1 million fine for the Patriots and the loss of two draft picks, including a 2016 first-rounder—turned this into the NFL’s fight of the century. There are only a few other comparable off-the-field battles in the NFL’s 95-year history, Al Davis taking the league to court over the rights to the Los Angeles market, for one. More recently, Bountygate. Both underscore what is likely a reality in the current situation—these are not fleeting tensions, but rather ones with long-term implications.
Wells set out Tuesday afternoon to defend his credibility and reputation, and was willing to dive into the nitty-gritty of his report. Among some of his explanations to questions raised about his methods and findings:
- Wells said he used the words “more probable than not” in his report to make clear that was the burden of proof in this case, a standard often used in civil court.
- Wells placed a lot of weight on the text messages exchanged between Jim McNally, the Patriots’ locker room attendant for the game officials, and John Jastremski, a Patriots equipment assistant. McNally referred to himself as “the deflator” in one message and joked “im [sic] not going to espn [sic]……..yet.” Jastremski also wrote to McNally in an exchange after the Patriots-Jets game in October, “He actually brought you up and said you must have a lot of stress trying to get them done …”
- “I view that statement as specifically saying that Tom Brady brought up McNally,” Wells said. “That is not circumstantial evidence. That is two of the participants in the scheme discussing what is taking place. I interpret that and I believe that to the bottom of my heart.”
- Wells said he only spoke to McNally once, before the above text messages were discovered, and the Patriots refused his request for a follow-up interview. The other three interviews McNally did, the ones referred to by Kraft, were with NFL security, and not part of Wells’ investigation, Wells said.
- Wells said Brady answered every question put to him in their interview, but where he failed to cooperate was in refusing to turn over electronic data from his phone. “If I had had access to Brady’s electronic messages, I might have received additional insights into what happened and that would have been good for everybody,” Wells said.
- Wells’ associate, Lorin Reisner, said Exponent, the scientific consulting firm that aided in the investigation, addressed all possible scenarios concerning the two air-pressure gauges that were used before the game and at halftime, and found the drop in air pressure of the Patriots’ footballs measured at halftime not explainable by the Ideal Gas Law. “The question of which gauge was used by [referee] Walt Anderson doesn’t affect any of the ultimate conclusions,” Reisner said.
SIDEBAR: A Closer Look at the Deflategate Data
By Michael Lopez, Ph.D.
Assistant professor of statistics at Skidmore College
The first step in any statistics analysis should be to describe your data. While tables are often sufficient, graphical displays can sometimes identify trends that aren’t obvious in tabular formats. The Wells Report provides damning evidence that PSI levels for 11 of the Patriots’ footballs dropped by a significantly larger margin than the four Colts’ balls that were measured when comparing halftime values to pregame values.
Using the table of PSI values given in the report, I graphed the PSI values for each ball (P 1-11 and C 1-4) and each gauge (A & B). Here’s the original data:
As recently pointed out by respected stats analyst Christopher Long, it’s fairly evident that the officials incorrectly labeled the gauges when checking the Colts’ balls at halftime. The gap between gauges A and B consistently hovers around 0.4 for each of the 11 Patriots balls, but the relationship is reversed for most of the Colts’ balls. Exponent, hired by the NFL to review such things, admitted that this mislabeling of the gauges was a possibility—and correctly pointed out that reversing the labels would not substantially change the overall findings.
However, re-doing the graph with different Colts labels presents another issue: there’s a chance that a data point was misrecorded.
Under this more reasonable labeling, 14 of the 15 footballs depict about the same difference in the PSI levels between gauges A and B. But one of the Colts balls (C3) now shows a change in the opposite direction, which can mean one of two things.
First, there’s a chance that ball C3—and none of the others from either team—was mislabeled, meaning the final analysis of the Wells Report would still be right. But the alternative is that one of C3’s measurements was misrecorded, a product of human error in either reading the gauge correctly or writing down the number correctly. If that’s true, then the statistical case against the Patriots is substantially weaker.
Of course, there’s no way of proving which error happened. But it gives the Patriots a foothold to fundamentally question the statistical analysis in the Wells Report. Because of the potential misrecording, Long argues that despite it being the one ball closest to its pregame measurement, that Colts’ football may hold the key to the Patriots’ appeal: “The strongest data point in favor of the Pats is the one Colts ball measurement of 12.95 PSI.”
When appealing, the Patriots have an argument to make that none of the numbers can be trusted. Not because of a flawed process with Ted Wells’ investigation, but because a costly mistake may have been made when the league measured the footballs during halftime of the AFC Championship Game.
But in trying to assert his independence, Wells only served to reinforce that in the Us vs. Them of the Patriots vs. the NFL, he is now firmly entrenched on the NFL’s side. Wells was hired as an independent investigator, and he said that Jeff Pash, the NFL’s general counsel, assisted him only in facilitating interviews. But it’s also true that after the NFL acted sternly against the Patriots based on the conclusions of Wells’ report, the league set up a conference call to help him defend those conclusions.
Each dropkick Wells launched toward Yee, like challenging him to release his notes from Brady’s interview with Wells, helps the NFL. So does his assertion that there was absolutely not a sting operation to catch the Patriots, and the only reason he looked into whether or not there was a sting was that the Patriots brought up the question “of whether certain people in the league might have an ax to grind with the Patriots.” When Wells was asked a follow-up about how many millions of dollars he was paid for the investigation, Aiello jumped in to end the line of questioning.
Wells finished the 30-minute conference call with this:
“All of this discussion that people in the league office wanted to put some type of hit on the most popular, iconic player in the league, the real face of the league, just doesn’t make any sense. It’s really a ridiculous allegation. What drove the decision in this report was one thing: it was the evidence. I could not ethically ignore the import and relevancy of those text messages and the other evidence.”
That was Wells’ closing argument, but this case is far from over.
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