Wake me when it’s over

“Once the balls have left the locker room, no one, including players, equipment managers, ball boys, and coaches, is allowed to alter the footballs in any way. If any individual alters the footballs, or if a non-approved ball is used in the game, the person responsible and, if appropriate, the head coach or other club personnel will be subject to discipline, including but not limited to, a fine of $25,000.”

— From the NFL Game Operations Manual

OK, do you remember how George Brett responded when he was called out after umpires determined that he had hit a home run with a bat that had too much pine tar? Of course you do. It was beautiful. He came tearing out of the dugout like a man who had been done wrong, like he was going to strangle somebody. He has told me that just before the umpires had called him out (the call was later reversed) he said to a teammate: “If they call me out here, I’m going to lose my (bleeping) mind.” He did that. He lost his bleeping mind.

The reason was simple: Before that game nobody gave a damn how much pine tar was on the bat. It had nothing to do with anything. Nobody was even sure why the too-much-pine-tar rule was on the books; it seemed to be there just because pine tar high would soil the baseballs and make them unusable. Billy Martin, the Yankees manager, was always looking for an edge, and he noticed Brett’s bat had all that pine tar on it. He knew it didn’t matter. But he determined that, when the time was right, he would make a show and get Brett called out. When Brett bashed a home run off Goose Gossage, the time was right. It really was a fun show.

This ridiculous Tom Brady deflated football thing should have been just as fun.

Instead, the NFL – like only the NFL can do – has turned it into a boring, overwrought, legalistic, front-page scandal, where it resides in New York Times prime real estate once maintained by My Lai or the fall of the Berlin Wall. Wednesday, investigator Ted Wells released a 243-page report (which is LONGER than the “Investigation of the My Lai Incident” report) that included such goodies as “Table A-3: Analysis of variance table for the statistical model (the team and football effects are statistically significant, as is the team/gauge interaction effect)” and two different gameday simulations, one using Logo Gauge to adjust the ball’s air pressure and one using Non-Logo Gauge. Now, that’s a party.

The report also uses the most careful language possible, so its determination seems to be that “it is more probable than not that Tom Brady was at least generally aware of inappropriate activities.” People, many of them Brady fans, have seized on the ambiguous wording there, which I think is the wrong battle for them. The conclusion may be careful, but any reasonable reading of the report leaves little doubt that (A) Brady wanted his footballs mushy; (B) these two Patriots shmoes knew that and would do more or less anything to please Brady (especially if there was some swag in it for them); (C) Brady was well aware that these guys were out there doing what was necessary to make his footballs nice and soft.

The report goes to extraordinary effort to prove that the Patriots (more probably than not) tampered with those footballs before the AFC Championship game last year. And, by that standard, I guess you can call it a success: After 243 pages, there seems little doubt about it. All 11 footballs tested were deflated below league standards. One of the guys was caught on security camera taking the footballs into a bathroom for one minute and 40 seconds. The official said it was the first time in his career that he could not find the footballs before the game.

And then there’s a bunch of math and science suggesting that cold air, overnight elves and bad vibes toward the Patriots could not have deflated the footballs that much. Ted Wells presents a convincing case. Those guys probably deflated the footballs. And Tom Brady probably had some general knowledge that they were going to do what they had to do to get him Charmin footballs he could squeeze.

Which leads to a different question the report doesn’t address: Who cares?

The NFL? The NFL doesn’t care about tampered-footballs. The NFL has NEVER cared about this stuff. If the NFL cared, do you think they would let offenses provide their own footballs? If the NFL cared, do you think they would let quarterbacks like Eli Manning use specially prepared footballs that have been scrubbed, scoured, spun, roughed up for months and months? If the NFL cared, do you think they would have a stinking $25,000 fine for altering footballs? Are you kidding: $25,000? That’s not even a parking ticket by NFL standards. They give bigger fines for mispronouncing Goodell’s name.

And as far as anyone can tell, they’ve never even levied that pitiful fine.

The NFL doesn’t care, not at all. They WANT quarterbacks to have footballs that they love throwing and they WANT receivers to have footballs they love catching. Do you know why it’s even a $25,000 fine? Believe it or not it used to be less than that – they raised it to $25,000 in 1999 but not because of quarterbacks. They raised the fine because KICKERS were doing all sorts of things to the footballs – baking them, overinflating them, putting Harry Potter charms on them etc. Those kickers with their black magic! Listen to this 1999 line from George Young, who was the Senior VP of football operations then.

“Quarterbacks have complained to us about the condition of some of the balls used in the game. We want to make sure the quarterbacks are comfortable with the balls.”

We want to make sure the quarterbacks are comfortable with the balls. If anything, that would become even more the NFL mission. In 2006, the NFL changed the rules so that quarterbacks could bring their own footballs with them on the road – it used to be that the home team supplied all the footballs. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning lobbied for that rule change, but everyone in the NFL was on board. Jeff Fisher, co-chair of the committee, said there was zero resistance to the change and that everyone just wanted quarterbacks to feel more relaxed.

That’s all the NFL has ever cared about when it comes to footballs. They want points, lots of points, passes, receptions, touchdowns. They want quarterbacks who can light it up. They want free-wheeling football. And they have never cared in the slightest about what the quarterbacks did to make the footballs easier to throw. They had the air rule in place just to give some semblance of control, but the league gave a lot of leeway there (even in the AFC Championship game, they allowed Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to have a bit more air in the ball than Brady because he likes it that way). All this stuff … it was like pine tar on a bat to the NFL.

And you might have thought that’s how they would have handled it when the Tom Brady and Patriots deflation thing came up in the first place. They might have said, “Yeah, the Patriots footballs were found to be underinflated, that’s a $25,000 fine.” They might have said, “OK, these shenanigans are not cool, and we’re going to add a little discipline to the fine.”

But because this is the multi-billion-dollar NFL … and because the Patriots have been caught before … and because everything football has to be magnified beyond all reason, this turned into a military tribunal, and a morality tale about cheating and legacies and whether a 45-7 score was legitimate and theories about how a football with a little less air in it could turn Tom Brady from Bruce Banner into the Incredible Hulk. Now, there’s a 243-page report and some stooge texting as “The Deflator” and mass hysteria and people suggesting that Tom Brady be suspended for as long or longer than Ray Rice, for crying out loud.

Tom Brady, no doubt, has come out of this looking pretty bad. It’s pretty clear that he wanted his footballs squishy and would get upset if they were not. His nervous press conference after the initial deflate news looked a lot like the old “I know that, you don’t think I know that?” Nathan Thurm character on Saturday Night Live. He seems to have decided to go with the “I know nothing” defense, which doesn’t really fit his controlling nature. He also seems to have connected himself with a couple of the old Joker henchmen from the 1960s Batman TV Series.

But the responses in the aftermath of the report – “Brady’s Legacy Forever Stained,” “Brady Proves to be a Liar,” “Brady should be suspended for a year” – suggest that we all might be losing our minds a little bit. It’s a little bit of air to make a football easier to grip. If the NFL has decided that from now on tampering with the football to make it a bit easier to throw is a capital offense, fine. Change the rules. Prevent teams from doing all that stuff to make them easier for quarterbacks to throw. Hire people to guard the footballs the way they guard the Oscar results. Have the league in charge of all the footballs so that they are exactly the same for every team.

But it’s clear that’s not how the NFL felt BEFORE Tom Brady and the Deflator Twins were caught. No, before that they just wanted footballs that made quarterbacks happy. A 243-page report on footballs being deflated … what is wrong with us? I looked online to see if this was longer than the 2014 NFL report on Player Health and Safety. It is … by more than 200 pages.

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