Deflategate was a National Football League (NFL) controversy involving the allegation that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ordered the deliberate deflation of footballs used in the Patriots’ victory against the Indianapolis Colts during the 2014 AFC Championship Game on January 18, 2015. The controversy resulted in Brady being suspended for four games, while the team was fined $1 million and forfeited two draft selections in 2016.

Brady appealed but eventually agreed to sit out the first four games of the 2016 season, which concluded with the Patriots winning Super Bowl LI and Brady being named MVP. The season also saw the NFL change the procedure for monitoring football pressure.

For his alleged part in the scandal, Brady’s suspension was originally to be implemented during the 2015 regular season. Brady successfully appealed the suspension in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, allowing him to resume his playing duties for the entirety of 2015. However, following the conclusion of the season, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reinstated Brady’s four-game suspension, which became effective for the 2016 regular season. After losing a request for a rehearing, Brady announced he would accept the suspension and missed the season’s first four games. The controversy remained a topic of discussion during the season.

The official rules of the National Football League require footballs to be inflated to a gauge pressure of between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch when measured by the game officials. The rules do not specify the temperature at which such measurement is to be made. As stated by the pressure-temperature law, there is a positive correlation between the temperature and pressure of a gas with a fixed volume and mass. Thus, if a football were inflated to the minimum pressure of 12.5 psi at room temperature, the pressure would drop below the minimum as the gases inside cooled to a lower ambient temperature on the playing field.

Before 2006, normal NFL operating procedure was for the home team to provide all of the game’s footballs. In 2006, the rules were altered so that each team uses its own footballs while on offense. Teams rarely handle a football used by the other team except after recovering a fumble or interception. Brady, along with Peyton Manning, who started at quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts in 2006, argued for the rules to change for the express purpose of letting quarterbacks use footballs that suited them. Removing air from a football makes it easier to grip, throw, and catch.

Early reports suggested that the Colts and Baltimore Ravens first suspected that the footballs the Patriots were using in the games against each team might have been deliberately underinflated to gain an illegal advantage during the 2014 NFL regular season, although Baltimore head coach John Harbaugh denied reports concerning the Ravens.

The American Football Conference (AFC) Championship Game for the 2014 season was played on January 18, 2015, at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, home of the Patriots, who hosted the Colts. The winning team would advance to play in Super Bowl XLIX. Before the game, the Colts had notified the NFL that they suspected the Patriots were underinflating balls, but provided no specific information.

During the first half of the AFC Championship Game, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady threw an interception to Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. After the play was over, Jackson handed the ball to the Colts equipment manager for safekeeping as a souvenir. Early reports suggested that Jackson was the first to suspect the ball was deflated, but Jackson said he did not notice anything wrong with the ball he caught. Jackson says he actually did not even know the ball was taken or that the controversy existed until he was being driven home from the team’s charter plane after the Colts had arrived in Indianapolis. ‘I wouldn’t know how that could even be an advantage or a disadvantage,’ Jackson said, ‘I definitely wouldn’t be able to tell if one ball had less pressure than another.’ After Jackson’s interception, the team notified NFL Gameday Operations that they ‘understood that there was a problem with the inflation level of a Patriots football.’

At halftime, NFL officials inspected the footballs. Former NFL referee Gerry Austin initially, and incorrectly, stated that 11 of the 12 balls used by the Patriots were measured to be two pounds per square inch below the minimum amount, but later reports contradicted this allegation, stating that only a single ball was two pounds per square inch below the minimum, while others were just a few ticks under the minimum. It was subsequently revealed that in NFL Official Clete Blakeman’s measurement sequence (which was deemed to be the more accurate of the two gauges), five of eleven footballs measured below 11.0 pounds, this being less than 90% of the officially mandated minimum pressure and a full two pounds below the claimed original inflation target (a magnitude of pressure loss difficult to account for through environmental factors alone).

According to NFL Senior Vice President of Officiating Dean Blandino, referees do not log the pressure of the balls before the game, or check during the game, and did not do so in this case. Walt Anderson, the referee, gauged the footballs. The Patriots’ game balls were re-inflated at halftime to meet specifications and were reintroduced into the game.

No issues were raised on the pressure of the footballs used in the second half. The pressures of four of the Colts’ footballs were measured at halftime using two gauges, and were found to be within regulation on one of the two gauges, but not on the other gauge. The remainder were not measured because, according to the Wells Report, ‘the officials were running out of time before the start of the second half.’ The Patriots led 17–7 at halftime; in the second half, the Patriots scored 28 points for a final score of 45–7.

The NFL began an investigation into the underinflation of the game balls. Bill Belichick indicated that he did not know anything about the balls being underinflated. Tom Brady initially referred to the accusations as ‘ridiculous.’ He went on to say that he was ‘handling the situation before the Super Bowl.’

An anonymous league source stated that the investigation was focusing on a Patriots locker room attendant who was seen on surveillance video taking the 24 game footballs (12 from each team) into a restroom for approximately 90 seconds. This video was provided to the NFL by the New England Patriots the day after the 45–7 Patriots victory.

The investigation also found that officials noticed during the game that a game ball was missing, and two different officials handed replacement balls to a Patriots equipment manager. One of those officials was reportedly fired from the NFL for selling game balls for personal profit, though the NFL denied this claim. The Patriots even submitted an amicus brief on behalf of Brady, who filed a federal lawsuit against the league to overturn his suspension, straddling the line between NFL stakeholder and whistleblower.

The report of the investigation was released in May 2015. It alleged that it was ‘more probable than not’ that the Patriots’ equipment personnel had deliberately circumvented the rules. Brady was implicated as it was deemed more probable than not that he was ‘generally aware’ of the deflation. The report further stated that Belichick and other members of the coaching staff were not involved in the situation. The report focused on the communications and actions of locker-room attendant Jim McNally and equipment assistant John Jastremski. The report concluded it was ‘more probable than not’ that the two deliberately released air from Patriots game balls after they were tested by game officials. In several texts between Jastremski and McNally, the two mentioned and joked about inflation, deflation, needles and gifts from Brady to McNally. Brady was a constant reference point in these discussions. McNally referred to himself as ‘the deflator’ in a text message to Jastremski as far back as May 2014.

Many Patriots fans and New England media members assailed the report for its ambiguous allegations and its minimization of the NFL’s wrongdoing in relation to the air pressure of the footballs. Many New England fans were furious at ESPN, especially at Chris Mortensen, for broadcasting news stories that were seen as painting the Patriots in a negative light. Mark Brunell and Jerome Bettis strongly criticized Brady on ESPN, saying that based on their playing experience, it was unlikely that the balls had been underinflated without Brady’s awareness.

On July 28, 2015 Goodell announced that he had upheld the four-game suspension, citing Brady’s destruction of his cell phone as a critical factor: ‘On or shortly before March 6, the day that Tom Brady met with independent investigator Ted Wells and his colleagues, Brady directed that the cell phone he had used for the prior four months be destroyed,’ the league statement read. ‘He did so even though he was aware that the investigators had requested access to text messages and other electronic information that had been stored on that phone. During the four months that the cell phone was in use, Brady had exchanged nearly 10,000 text messages, none of which can now be retrieved from that device. The destruction of the cell phone was not disclosed until June 18, almost four months after the investigators had first sought electronic information from Brady.’

At a March 3, 2016 hearing in New York City, the three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit scrutinized NFLPA lawyer Jeffrey L. Kessler more intensely than it did NFL lawyer Paul Clement, and circuit judge Denny Chin stated that ‘the evidence of ball tampering is compelling, if not overwhelming.’

Initial media reaction to the incident was extremely strong. After the reports emerged before the completion of the NFL’s investigation, several media outlets had already called for Belichick–or even the entire Patriots team–to be disqualified from participation in Super Bowl XLIX.[Dan Wetzel of ‘Yahoo! Sports’ strongly criticized the league for deferring much of the investigation until after the Super Bowl so as not to interfere with the Patriots’ preparations. Former quarterback Troy Aikman asserted that Deflategate was worse than Bountygate (an incident in which the New Orleans Saints was accused of paying bonuses for injuring opposing team players), and that Belichick should receive a harsher penalty than the one-year suspension Saints coach Sean Payton had received. Other voices in the press took a strident but opposing view, calling it a ‘phony scandal’ or ‘the dumbest sports scandal ever.’ The Patriots may have received excess scrutiny because of the 2007 Spygate incident, in which they were sanctioned for positioning a video camera in an unapproved location to film an opponent’s defensive signals.

‘Boston Globe’ sports columnist Dan Shaughnessy concluded: ‘Bottom line: The Patriots were doing it. They had a system of deflating footballs after the balls were inspected by officials. Any agenda-less person who reads the Wells Report would come away with no other conclusion. The texts were unexplainable.’

The NFL rules committee changed the inspection rules for the 24,960 footballs used during the season:

‘Two hours and 15 minutes prior to kickoff, both teams will be required to bring 24 footballs (12 primary and 12 back-up) to the Officials’ Locker Room for inspection. Two Game Officials, designated by the Referee, will conduct the inspection and record the PSI measurement of each football. The League’s Security Representative will observe the inspection process. Primary game balls for each team will be numbered one through 12, and any game ball within the allowable range of 12.5 PSI to 13.5 PSI will be approved, and the PSI level will not be altered. Any game ball that is determined to be over 13.5 PSI or under 12.5 PSI will either be deflated or inflated to 13.0 PSI. The same procedure will be followed with respect to the back-up set of game balls for each team.’

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