By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN
(CNN) 1/23/15 — Let’s call this NFL game balls for dummies.
Oh, don’t take offense. Up until a few days ago, when the Deflategate “scandal” broke, we were all dummies when it came to the esoterica of NFL ball rules.
Hell, let’s be honest; we were imbeciles.
Now, we’re learning all sorts of fancy things about the league’s regulations and how teams and referees handle footballs before and during a game. For instance, did you know the ball must be a “prolate spheroid”? And did you know that before today, the term “prolate spheroid” had appeared on CNN.com only four times in its history?
Perhaps that’s for the better.
Anyway, you’ve got questions, and as so often is the case, we have answers. Let’s get pumped up! (Sorry, it’s tough for writers to resist a play on words, no matter how terrible.)
What on Earth is going on?
The NFL is investigating the New England Patriots to determine why 11 of the 12 game balls they provided for Sunday’s AFC Championship game were under-inflated by about 2 pounds per square inch each.
The Pats supplied their own balls? Isn’t that letting the fox watch the hen house?
Wellllllll, for lack of a more elaborate answer … yes?
According to NFL regulations, each team provides a dozen balls to the referee for testing two hours and 15 minutes before kickoff. The home team also supplies 12 backup balls, and for outdoor games, the visiting team has the option of bringing another 12 balls. In addition, the ball manufacturer — in this case, Wilson (cue “Cast Away” jokes) — ships eight more balls, in what the NFL scientifically terms “a special box,” directly to the referee. The box is opened two hours and 15 minutes before the game, and the referee marks each ball with a “K,” to designate it for kicking. ESPN writer Kate Fagan pointed out the curiosity of the regulation in an appearance on “Around the Horn” on Wednesday. When Fagan played college basketball, she said, the referees brought out NCAA-supplied balls an hour before the game. Those balls were used for warmups and the game, and they were not to leave the court, she said.
If the NCAA has such a rule for women’s basketball games, she posited, how can the ludicrously profitable NFL not provide its own game balls? A fine question. .
Who is in charge of making sure balls are up yo snuff?
”The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications. A pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the Referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game,” NFL rules state.
The ball attendant transports the footballs to the field, and ball boys keep them on the sideline, ESPN reports. Ball boys are usually vetted by teams and paid by the NFL and can be sons or daughters of team employees, the network reports.
So it was the ball boy?
Yes, with a candlestick in the conservatory. That’s a joke. If the NFL had pinpointed a culprit, CNN wouldn’t need to devote writers to deciphering the league’s game-ball rules.
What other rules pertain to the game?
As mentioned, it has to be a prolate spheroid, which in layman’s terms means “shaped like a football,” and it has to be signed by Commissioner Roger Goodell — as opposed to, say, Kate Upton or “Weird” Al Yankovic.
It should have between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds of air per square inch and weigh 14 to 15 ounces. It should have a long axis of 11 to 11.25 inches, a long circumference of 28 to 28.5 inches and a short circumference of 21 to 21.25 inches.
And, perhaps most importantly, it needs to be constructed of a urethane bladder encased in pebble-grained leather of “natural tan color.” So, no purple footballs.
Why would someone deflate the balls?
It supposedly makes them easier to grip for the quarterback and receivers. That would’ve been especially important in the wet conditions in which the AFC Championship was played.
Is it always an advantage?
Eh, unclear. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers allegedly once told commentator and former quarterback Phil Simms that he could get a better grip on an over-inflated ball.
How was the issue raised?
In the second half of Sunday’s game, Indianapolis Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. According to Newsday, he took the ball to his team’s equipment staff, which then informed head coach Chuck Pagano, who told general manager Ryan Grigson, who told NFL director of football operations Mike Kensil, who told the officials on the field.
This should remind you of that kindergarten game where you sat in a circle whispering things in your classmates’ ears to demonstrate how messages are lost as they’re conveyed from one person to the next. Thus, it’s entirely possible Jackson told the equipment staff he wanted to go for pizza after the game, and by the time it got to the officials we had Deflategate.
What about the wing official and umpire who spot the ball before each play? Wouldn’t they have noticed?
Hmm, you would think so.
Has this ever happened before?
There are lots of tales of ball manipulation surfacing in the wake of Deflategate, but one particular story stands out. In 2012, the University of Southern California, which kind of has this thing for cheating, was accused of under-inflating balls used in a game against the Oregon Ducks.
The school was reprimanded and fined, and a student-manager was axed when he conceded that he had under-inflated the balls after the officials had approved them. The unnamed student said he did it all by his lonesome, and no other USC coach, staff member or administrator had any knowledge of his shenanigans.
Could weather have played a role?
There have been numerous reports that cold weather can diminish ball pressure, which would normally be pertinent for the Boston area … except that it was 51 degrees in Foxborough, Massachusetts, at kickoff.
Is it possible coach Patriots Bill Belichick knew?
Outside of Massachusetts, the general public puts Belichick somewhere on par with Whitey Bulger, so you’ll find no shortage of people who say, “Oh, most definitely,” especially after Spygate. The coach says, however, “In my entire coaching career, I have never talked to any player (or) staff member about football air pressure.”
What about Brady?
Asked about it Monday on a Boston radio show, the three-time Super Bowl winner responded, “I don’t even respond to stuff like this.” He also responded by calling the accusation “ridiculous.” On Thursday, he told reporters he didn’t alter the balls and assured them, “I’ve always played by the rules.”
At least one football icon has his doubts that Gisele Bundchen’s lesser half was not complicit. In one of the most damning non-accusations in history, Hall of Fame coach John Madden told The Sports Xchange he believed Belichick was clueless about the ball pressure, but “I can see — and you hate to make examples of what you can see because that sounds like you are accusing someone — but I can see that being between the quarterback and the equipment guy.”
He also said, “That’s something that wouldn’t be driven by a coach or just the equipment guy. Nobody, not even the head coach, would do anything to the football unilaterally, such as adjust the amount of pressure in a ball, without the quarterback not knowing. It would have to be the quarterback’s idea.”
What to make of that? No idea, but they did name the greatest video game the world has ever known after the dude.
Has the rest of the team spoken up?
Several Patriots have called the controversy “stupid” and accused the media of fueling the controversy. (For what it’s worth, this writer is willing to bet his pinkies no journalist is responsible for deflating the balls.)
Do the Patriots forfeit the win if they are found guilty?
Ridiculously unlikely (sorry, Indianapolis), but they could be fined and docked a draft pick. After Spygate, the league took away a Patriots’ first-round draft pick, fined the team $250,000 and fined Belichik $500,000, but don’t expect anything that serious in Deflategate.
Could the ball pressure really have played that large a factor?
Similarly unlikely. The Pats won 45-7, and 28 of their points came in the second half — after the game officials had pumped the balls back up to their regulation pressure. You make the call.
Then why is this such a big deal?
See earlier remark regarding Belichick and Bulger. Also, there’s this game coming up two Sundays from now called the Super Bowl …