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How Not to Handle a Crisis: A DeflateGate Update

Tom Brady, who is implicated in an NFL investigation into whether his team intentionally deflated footballs used in the AFC Championship Game in January. Photo by Keith Allison. Used under Creative Commons license.

By Mike Kuczkowski

In Week 7 of what was a tough 2014 NFL season, Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady was ticked off.

It was halftime, October 16. Patriots v. Jets. At home. New England was up 17-12, in a surprisingly feisty matchup. At the time, the Patriots were 4-2, having endured two tough losses in the first four games of the season. Brady had two touchdown passes in the game already, but he was annoyed at the condition of the footballs he was throwing.

He turned to John Jastremski, Patriots equipment assistant, and told him the footballs “f***g suck.”

Whether that was a flippant comment or the start of a conspiratorial effort to ensure that Patriots footballs were pressurized to below regulations, we still don’t know. We do know that four weeks later, against the Indianapolis Colts, the Colts intercepted a football from Brady that felt “squishy” in their estimation. They tucked that little insight into their proverbial back pocket, waiting to call the Patriots out on it if it ever became useful. (I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: this is the NFL’s Pine Tar incident.)

Fast forward to the AFC Championship Game, January 18. Patriots v. Colts again. Second Quarter, Patriots ahead 14-0. Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepts a deep pass up the middle intended for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski. Jackson hands the ball over to Colts team officials, who test the ball and find it’s underinflated. They flag it to the NFL, alleging foul play.

And so, Deflategate is born.

This week, the scandal trudges on, with the release of a 243-page report from the law firm the NFL retained to investigate the Colts’ allegations. The DeflateGate crisis erupted the next day, dominated the airwaves in the two weeks before Super Bowl XLIX, and now, it’s back.

It turns out, not surprisingly, there are employees of football teams who spend a lot of time preparing footballs. Breaking in the leather, reducing or increasing the tackiness of the ball. Air pressure, at least for some, is actually a pretty big issue. Clubhouse attendants joke a lot about the fussy demands of quarterbacks. Signed game day jerseys and footballs are given out in gratitude to the men behind the scenes. It’s a big deal.

And, it’s not without drama. Among other disclosures, we can now read the text message exchanges between Jim McNally, Patriots locker room attendant, and Jastremski – the two men responsible for delivering game day footballs that Quarterback Brady would find acceptable – that are as ribald as any of the jokes about Brady’s “balls” published in the midst of the scandal.

In one exchange, October 17 – the day after the Jets game – McNally tells Jastremski that he plans to overinflate footballs, just to get back at Brady for complaining.

“Tom sucks…im going (to) make that next ball a f**in balloon.”

Whether these texts represent a “smoking gun” of conspiracy, or innocent banter between two colleagues is up for debate. (Check Twitter, the debate is happening.) But, it further cements DeflateGate as one of the more ineptly handled crises of recent years.

I opined on Deflategate back in January, and said there were a number of clear missteps by the Patriots and the NFL in their handling of the crisis. In summary, I said the Patriots (and to some degree the NFL):

  • Bungled their disclosure of facts
  • Fumbled the roll-out of information about the incident
  • Offered up extremely amateurish spokespersons
  • Failed to manage the calendar and resolve issues in a timely manner
  • Failed to provide context for the importance of the issue at hand

Let’s add “waiting until early May to release a definitive account of what actually happened” to the list. And, that goes onto the NFL’s ledger. Conveniently after the NFL Draft. They appear to have managed the calendar a bit, shall we say, too deftly.

That said, the report itself is revealing in its facts. Startling in its candor. Along the way, it raises a host of issues that spell trouble for the reigning Super Bowl Champions. Specifically:

  • Jastremski and Brady talked a lot about the condition of game day footballs, and Brady took a personal interest in virtually every aspect of how those footballs were prepared
  • Jastremski and McNally joked a lot about that process
  • McNally, who was responsible for taking the game balls that the referees had approved onto the field, left the officials’ locker room with the footballs without permission, which is a breach of standard operating procedure (Walt Anderson, the head of the officiating crew, said it was the first time in his 19 years as an NFL official that he could not locate the game balls at the start of a game.)
  • Game officials did not accompany McNally and the balls to the field, as is standard practice
  • McNally stopped along the way and took the balls into a bathroom and locked the door for 1 minute and 40 seconds

If any deflating was done, that’s when it happened. (Incidentally, McNally’s nickname, according to the report, was “The Deflator.”)

So the whole DeflateGate controversy probably was not much ado about nothing after all.

Perhaps most significantly, it makes clear that at least at some points in his career, Tom Brady has been very concerned about the issue of the amount of air pressure of his game day footballs.

And as early as 2006, according to reports, Brady was one of several quarterbacks who lobbied for a rules change that would allow visiting teams to have more autonomy in the preparation of game day footballs. In the report, as noted above, he definitely gives staff clear instructions on the condition and the pressure he wants in game day footballs.

The report also explains something I criticized back in January – and suggests a different explanation for the dynamic I observed than I expected.

In head coach Bill Belichick’s Jan. 22 press conference, he said he was “shocked” about news reports of deflated footballs and had no knowledge about the process of preparing game day footballs. He was monotone and came across curmudgeonly, as he often does. Belichick ended it by saying the media should ask Brady about the issue: “Tom’s personal preferences on his footballs are something he can talk about in much better detail and information than I could possibly provide.”

Belichick’s claims of ignorance ran against his reputation as an incredibly detail-oriented control freak. And, his “shocked” quote drew comparisons to Captain Renault’s declaration of innocence about the gambling at Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca.

A few hours later, Brady projected innocence and even bewilderment at the issue. In response to the question “Is Tom Brady a cheater?” Brady replied, “I don’t believe so.” Asked if he knew whether anyone on the Patriots had done anything wrong, he said “I have no knowledge of any wrongdoing.” In addressing how he liked footballs prepared for game day, he said he liked them inflated to 12.5 psi, which is the lowest level permitted by the rules, but that his process in general focused on picking gameday footballs based on their grip, not their inflation level. “It’s not like I ever squeeze the football, I just grip the football.” To many observers, Brady saved the day.

So, yay for Brady and boo (again) for Belichick. Except, the NFL report concludes in fact Belichick did not know anything about the issue. He was being honest and, I think, fairly transparent. Now it looks like Brady is at least stretching the truth, according the facts outlined in the report.

What’s next? Sadly, this report – 14 weeks in the making – doesn’t bring us what we need: Closure.

The report is detailed on the facts, yet equivocal in its conclusions: “(I)t 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.”

Now what?

That shouldn’t even be a question. There is no reason this report should have been released without at the same time issuing suspensions or fines. It should be a one-day story. Rip off the Bandaid. Deal with the consequences. Move on.

Instead, it’s as though the report is a trial balloon, intended to gauge the public’s reaction to the facts before the league makes its move.

This shows the biggest problem the NFL has, the lack of a disciplinary structure for issues of this nature. Commissioner Roger Goodell lacks trust, and candidly as the head of the organization he shouldn’t be the one doling out discipline. Someone else, someone credible, even-tempered and with a deep reverence for the integrity of the game needs to have the role of fining and suspending players and teams that violate the rules.

Goodell will eventually address DeflateGate. He may suspend Brady for a game or two, banned the clubhouse employees from the league or fine the team. For now, all we can do is speculate.

Which means more debate on an issue that should already be in the rear-view mirror. Meanwhile, the list of ways in which DeflateGate is a case study in how not to handle a crisis grows longer.

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