Eisenberg: DeflateGate Lacks Context And Perspective


Are you waiting breathlessly for more DeflateGate fallout to hijack the news cycle again? Sorry, I'm not.

Sure, I tee-heed as much as anyone when the "read the rule book" Patriots were forced to sit up straight, clear their throats and defend themselves against the embarrassing notion that they're serial rule-benders. While I couldn't begin to tell you what happened to their footballs in the AFC title game, they've been caught doing funny stuff before, and well, what's that cliché? You lie in the bed you make.

But frankly, pretty much from the outset, I think the issue has lacked context and perspective.

Soon after it initially broke, former Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson admitted he paid ballboys to scuff up the balls before his Super Bowl-winning performance in 2003. But before you start flinging the c-word (cheater) around, read what Sports Illustrated's Don Banks reported, that Johnson and Rich Gannon, the Oakland quarterback he defeated in that game, were friends and former teammates, and they met before the game and agreed that something should be done about the balls being too slick.

"I think it's a non-story, quite frankly," Gannon told Sirius XM before this year's Super Bowl. "I don't think it's the reason we lost."

No doubt about that. And for that matter, the Patriots would have battered the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game if they had played with regular footballs, deflated footballs or pumpkins.

What DeflateGate has done most effectively, I believe, is open our eyes to the fact that jimmying with footballs is a look-the-other-way part of the sport that might be pretty common.

"Every team tampers with the footballs," former NFL quarterback Matt Leinart tweeted as DeflateGate heated up.  "Ask any Qb In the league, this is ridiculous!!"

I don't know what, if anything, is going to happen to the Patriots after the league concludes its investigation, but I'm guessing we'll see changes in how balls are handled before games, where they come from, who touches them, etc. I certainly was surprised to learn that teams, not the league, supply the balls. Talk about asking for trouble. I'm sure major league pitchers would love a few minutes of "alone time" with the baseballs they're going to throw that night.

The NFL, with $9 billion in annual revenues, certainly can afford to provide the footballs. That's a good place to start cleaning this up.

As for the idea that teams and players generally skirt a few rules and/or behave less than sportingly now and then, well, not to sound cynical, but you do know that happens, right? It does … in many ways.

The Atlanta Falcons seemingly have been caught piping fake crowd noise into their dome – a bigger issue than deflating balls, I think, given how playing at home is such an advantage. The Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys paid a massive price for salary cap violations a few years ago.

Players and coaches certainly get creative in seeking an edge. A unit coordinator who works "upstairs" might find himself with a less-than-ideal view of the field on the road. An offensive lineman might try to hide the fact that he's holding by grabbing the inside of a defender's pads when they're crushed together. Defensive backs and receivers might paw at each other as passes come their way. Some players might tape up phantom injuries so they can club opponents that much harder.

Bottom line, there's a whole "game within a game," occurring largely out of the public's view, with teams and players walking an array of fine legal lines, all in the name of trying to gain an edge, no matter how small.

It's really no different than major league hitters putting a little too much pine tar on their bats, or infielders trying to get away with not touching second base on double plays. You can call it cheating, but it's really just part of the game, especially if you're smart about it.

DeflateGate is no more important, but it caught fire as a subject mostly because it fits into a larger, fair-play narrative about the Patriots that has existed since the SpyGate scandal of 2007. Hall of Fame coach Don Shula recently referred to New England's Bill Belichick as "Beli-cheat," so you know it has legs.

Belichick and the Patriots are going to have to live with whatever that says about them, a reality their many detractors don't mind, but as sly skirters of certain rules, they aren't alone.

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