Saturday, November 16, 2019
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Writing prompts for Deflategate

NFL pro football ordinarily doesn’t reach down into the K-12 edusphere. The scandal this past winter, however, in which deflated footballs were used in the AFC Championship Game between the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts, extended the influence of the NFL a bit.

For those who, somehow, don’t know about the “Deflategate” scandal, it’s actually pretty simple: In order to make the footballs used in the AFC championship game squishier and easier to handle, two staff members from the New England Patriots allegedly let some air out before the game, which was played in the rain. The NFL specifies that game balls should be inflated to a certain pressure, and deflating them, if that’s what happened, broke the rules.

Then, the Patriots won the game, 45-7, and future Hall-of-Fame quarterback Tom Brady of the Patriots subsequently denied any knowledge of the deflating activity as he went on to win his fourth Super Bowl.

A 243-page report released on May 6 by Ted Wells, an attorney hired by the league, concluded that, “in connection with the AFC Championship Game, it is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the playing rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.” The report also concluded that Mr Brady “was at least generally aware” of the arrangement.

I’ve read this report, and I would summarize its main conclusions as follows:

  • Maybe Tom Brady cheated and maybe he didn’t.
  • We think it’s more likely he did cheat than he didn’t.
  • We have no definitive evidence either way.
  • So, we’re not really sure.

Robert Kraft, CEO of the Patriots, disagreed with the report’s conclusions but said he wouldn’t challenge them, according to a story from the Reuters news service. “While I respect the independent process of the investigation, the time, effort, and resources expended to reach this conclusion are incomprehensible to me,” he was quoted as saying. “Knowing that there is no real recourse available, fighting the league and extending this debate would prove to be futile.”

Despite having no “smoking gun,” the NFL suspended Mr Brady for four regular-season games next season. Also, the team will have to pay a $1 million fine and will lose some draft picks, ESPN reported.

Rather than report this as the non-news story that it clearly is, I want to mention that a contributing factor in the penalties handed down to the Patriots was the team’s lack of cooperation in the investigation. It’s one thing to cheat—and the report, as I said, is not at all sure about whether cheating took place—but it’s another thing entirely to cover it up and try to hide what you did.

Do we have to be honest with ourselves? With the public? Is covering up wrongdoing a bigger problem than the wrongs committed? How much proof is required in different situations? Does one bad act nullify good acts? Is it OK for employers to ask an employee to turn over “relevant” evidence when that employee may have broken a rule?

What are some major differences between rules and laws? What are the major consequences of breaking laws? Of breaking rules? How ethical is it to let one person take the fall for the team? What are the goals of punishment? Should the punishments be known to people in advance or is it OK to set them after the fact from zero to infinity? See Common Core literacy standard WHST.11-12.1.B for more information.

One law professor at the University of New Hampshire is trying to address some of these questions in a new course, open to 75 law students, called “Deflategate: The Intersection of Sports, Law, and Journalism.” Michael McCann says the course isn’t 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,” he writes.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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