Going to School on Deflategate
DURHAM, N.H. — The fall semester class, in the University of New Hampshire course catalog, is called INCO 460. It meets every Wednesday from 5:10-8 p.m., in 240 McConnell Hall, a 154-seat auditorium with plush chairs on this bucolic campus 73 miles north of Boston.
Professor Michael McCann brought the class to order earlier this month, and soon, the visiting lecturer opened the floor for questions. At one point, a male student in the front row raised his hand.
“Do you think Goodell is a liar,” the student said, “and if you don’t, are you kidding me?”
INCO 460, “Deflategate: The intersection of sports, law and journalism,” was in session. In Patriots country.
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Picking out that question isn’t really fair. There were lots of impartial queries about the NFL’s legal battle with quarterback Tom Brady, even from a class of about 80 students who mostly identify as Patriots fans. The visiting lecturer? Yours truly. I stayed for three hours, but I could have stayed for six—that’s how engaged and interested and clued-in these students are. “One great thing about a class like this is the attendance is always good,” McCann said. “Students don’t want to skip this class.”
On this night, the class was laser-focused on all things Roger Goodell, Ted Wells, Tom Brady and those allegedly deflated footballs from last season’s AFC Championship Game. No talking. No leaving early. No one asleep in the comfy chairs. McCann has even allowed four locals to audit the class, and they were at attention for the three hours, too. One of them, Charles McClain, a 72-year-old retired IBM database security analyst from nearby Lee, N.H., sums up the scandal thusly: “It’s basically Game of Thrones with footballs instead of swords.”
“I talk about it a lot,” said freshman Colin Greeley, whose notebook is adorned with a FREE BRADY sticker. “And some people when they first hear it are like, ‘Really? That’s a class?’ ”
Yes, it’s a class. The syllabus given to students describes its mission: “This class is not about deflated footballs. Instead, it is about the interplay between those footballs—along with numerous other sports “things”—and the legal, regulatory and journalistic systems governing sports. … Students in Deflategate will learn about crucial areas of law that relate to sports and the methodologies used to practice in relevant fields. Contract law, business law, constitutional law, intellectual property law, evidence law, tort law, labor law, antitrust law, and the law of private associations are among the legal regimes that will be closely examined. Students will also gain valuable instruction on core journalism methods and their application to a sports story attracting national headlines.”
McCann, a law professor and columnist for SI.com, has lined up an impressive array of guest lecturers, including Adolpho Birch, the NFL’s senior vice president of labor policy; former Patriots counsel Jack Mula; sports attorney Alan Milstein; David Greenspan, a member of Tom Brady’s legal team; and journalists. That’s how I found my way here.
“It wasn’t even my idea,” McCann told me said after the session. “It was the associate dean at my law school, Margaret McCabe. She came to me in February and said, ‘How about you go over to the undergraduate campus and teach a course on sports law? How about a class on Deflategate? It involves a lot of law, it involves some business issues, it would be a great way for students at the undergraduate level to get introduced to some of the work we are doing over at the law school.’
“This is a class that can be taught not only this year, but in the years ahead. A lot of this is complicated legal material that [students] are finding more accessible because it is in the context of a story they are so passionate about. They are Patriots fans and they are obsessed with the story of Deflategate, and through that obsession they are learning about the law and they are learning about areas of the law that they otherwise wouldn’t.”
For McCann, it’s rare to teach a subject that so many students already are so familiar with. “They know the facts,” he said. “It is really breathtaking. Normally when I teach a class, it can be a struggle to get them to do the readings. Here, they’ve already read everything.”
“Obviously,” said freshman Nicholas Arena, “we are in New England and we favor the Patriots. But professor McCann did a very good job of explaining the other side of the story and not just being biased. We understand both sides of the story. It’s crazy that my viewpoint has changed. It’s not, ‘Oh Goodell, he screwed over the Pats.’ It’s more, ‘Well, there are some suspicious things and it could go either way.’ I never thought I would say that.”
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One of the most interesting things on this night was the array of questions I was asked. A sampling:
• Was this a makeup call by the NFL for Spygate? (I said I doubt it.)
• The Colts’ balls were below normal PSI, which has been under-reported. Why? (I said I agree, and I don’t know why.)
• As the issue has picked up steam, the league has had numerous opportunities to minimize it and they’ve doubled down on their position. Why? (I think it’s because Goodell believes Brady was complicit, I said.)
• Are there any negotiations to settle this case? (Not that I’m aware of, I said, but it’s unlikely we’d hear of them. Plus, there’s no longer any incentive for Brady to settle. )
• It’s clear how the NFLPA feels about the case, but how do actual players outside New England feel? (I said I thought the majority supported Brady.)
• How many more years will Goodell be commissioner? (No idea, I said.)
• NBA commissioner Adam Silver immediately tackled the Donald Sterling Clippers situation last year. Silver took care of it with league people. Why did Goodell farm it out? (Excellent question; Goodell obviously felt he needed an investigative team to sort through the layers.)
• Look at the power owners of the NFL and the conflict of interest that might exist on the field if one owner goes against the owner of a rival team. How does the commissioner’s office sort that out? (Interesting question, which makes Goodell’s impartiality vital.)
• If Goodell were to no longer be the commissioner, who would be the most logical replacement? (Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, I said, but I don’t think he wants the job.)
• Do you play fantasy football? (Yes. I am in a league run by my daughter, and I stink.)
• How credible a news source is ESPN, and why hasn’t Chris Mortensen apologized for getting the story wrong in January? (Very, I said. And I don’t know Mort’s business; I have enough of a problem getting my own stuff right.)
A more detailed explanation was needed there. After Mortensen reported that 11 of the 12 Patriots’ footballs were at least two pounds underinflated, I reported that a source whom I trusted confirmed that story to me. When Ted Wells’ report on the deflated footballs came out, however, it told a different story. New England’s footballs had begun the day at 12.5 psi, meaning that if they were at least two pounds underinflated, they’d have measured at 10.5 psi or less. Of the 22 measurements (the 11 balls on two gauges), only one was two pounds under. It measured exactly 10.50 psi.
I told the class that I was responsible for my own work, not Mortensen’s. And I told the class I was sick about my mistake, and that I had no one to blame but myself, and that I wouldn’t blame readers/listeners if they had a trust issue with me going forward. I also told them that while I don’t think my source knowingly lied to me, I had become more skeptical. Now I would work to try to regain the trust I had lost. It’s all I can do.
* * *
Charles McClain, the retiree in a flannel shirt and sweater, had a couple of questions, and then I had some for him. The first: What are you doing here?
“I am an ardent Patriots fan,” he said. “To put it bluntly, I think they got screwed. It is the juiciest story of the year. My wife, who is a moderate football fan, really got into this. It became a whole family discussion. My wife works at the university. She encouraged me to audit the class.
“To me, it doesn’t make sense that the league is putting so much focus on this. It feels like Brady is getting jobbed. I don’t think [Brady and the Patriots] did it, and I don’t even think there’s a prima facie case they did it. It sounds like an old-fashioned mafia vendetta. I understand it probably isn’t, but it doesn’t pass the smell test, with how they’re pursuing this.
“The class covers a lot more than Deflategate. In fact, there’s less of [the footballs] than I thought there would be. There’s a lot about sports law. One of the things that professor McCann can do that all the other people I talk to about this issue can’t is he can tell you what the strategies are, the whys behind the steps the NFL takes, the likelihood of success or failure. The discussion of how the appeal might go is fascinating.”
So, I said to him, it sounds like this has been an educational experience.
“Sitting in the class with all those kids, as a 72-year-old guy, is very different,” McClain said. “Next semester I may take Italian. I have always wanted to learn Italian.”
* * *
For one segment of the class, I asked McCann if he could arrange for the quarterback of the school’s football team to partake in an experiment. Midway through class, the Wildcats’ junior quarterback, Adam Riese, walked in.
I brought three footballs to class. I had inflated one to 13.5 psi, the maximum allowable air pressure for an NFL football. I had inflated another to 12.5 psi, the minimum. And I had inflated the last one to 11.5, one pound below the minimum—and close to the average level that the 11 Patriot footballs measured at halftime of the AFC Championship Game (11.30 psi). I coded each ball with a Sharpie in a way that wouldn’t be obvious to anyone handling them for the first time.
I asked Riese to come to the front of the class, where I stood, and to feel the footballs and throw them. One by one, I handed them to the left-handed quarterback. “Take your time, and tell me which you think is which, and how big of a difference you think it feels like,” I said.
Riese felt them, and then threw them about 12 yards across the room to Greeley, the student with the FREE BRADY sticker on his notebook. “Not too much of a difference at all,” Riese said. “I think this one [feeling the 13.5-psi ball] is probably pumped up the most and this one [feeling the 11.5 ball] is probably the least, but I really can’t tell too much of a difference. I don’t see how something like this could make that much of a difference when you are throwing and catching, honestly.”
I asked Riese about the severity of the league’s attempted punishment of Brady (a four-game ban, overturned by Judge Richard Berman and now on appeal) and taking two draft picks and $1 million from the Patriots.
“They are making it seem like he was throwing flat footballs out there,” Riese said. “I wouldn’t even want to throw that, but feeling these footballs, I don’t see how that can make that much of a difference, with balls being rotated and stuff like that. Honestly, when I am in there I don’t even sometimes notice a difference in balls.”
Now for the moment of truth: Which ball is inflated to 13.5, which to 12.5, and which to 11.5?
“This one is heaviest,” Riese said, singling out the 13.5-psi ball.
“This one is the middle.” It was the 12.5 ball.
“This one’s the lightest.” It was the 11.5 ball.
“You get an A!” I said.
He then held two of the balls, the 12.5 and the 11.5, and said, “I don’t see that much of a difference. If either one was tossed into the game, I wouldn’t even notice.”
* * *
After the class, about a dozen students came up to the front to hold the footballs and try to tell the difference for themselves. All but a couple got the order of 11.5, 12.5 and 13.5 wrong. “They feel the same to me,” one female student said. And, of course, if you’re not handling footballs every day, for hours on end, they’d feel pretty similar to each other. I could barely tell the difference, and I knew the code written on the balls.
I explained to the students that the NFL, despite appealing the case, wishes this story would quiet down and go away. But how ironic it is that the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals could hear the NFL’s appeal in February, in the incredibly festive week of Super Bowl 50, when the league has plans to throw one of the biggest week-long parties in its history to celebrate the golden year of the Super Bowl.
Imagine the Patriots are in Super Bowl 50 and this case is dragged into the public eye again, when the focus should be on nothing else but football. The final chapter of this saga has yet to be written, but even when it’s over, Professor McCann won’t ever lack for students.