Sports View: NFL overreacts to DeflateGate

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

If you want to see how much incompetence $10 billion can buy, you need only look to the new rules the NFL has adopted in response to the DeflateGate scandal.

The NFL created a mountain from a molehill by escalating a simple rules violation that carried a $25,000 fine into a loss of draft picks against the New England Patriots and a four game suspension of quarterback Tom Brady. And the controversy seemingly without end now resides in federal court.

But one accomplishment of DeflateGate was to expose the lax way in which NFL game balls were handled. While league rules required footballs to be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 PSI, there was no formal procedure set forth to test and record the air pressure. Furthermore, security of the balls was virtually nonexistent with multiple individuals having access to the balls before and during games.

I won’t bore you by reciting the new rules in detail—and they are detailed. If you’re curious, you can look them up on your own. Suffice it to say that they can be summed up in one word: an overreaction. OK, so that’s two words. But it’s still hundreds of words less than the NFL used in drafting the new rules, most of which are either repetitive or unnecessary.

The responsibility for enforcing the new rules rests with game officials who will have added duties pre- and post-game, during the game and at halftime. As an example, during halftime the game balls will be tested and inspected and the results recorded by the same two officials who performed those functions pre-game. Advice to the game referee who is responsible for designating those two officials: make sure they have good bladders. Officials currently have barely six minutes during halftime to use the facilities and grab a snack. Their new responsibilities will leave them no time for personal matters.

The NFL would do well to copy MLB when it comes to game balls. MLB umpires are the only ones who are entrusted with game balls from pre-game to the end of the game. Anytime an umpire believes a ball is damaged, has a mark or is otherwise unfit for play, he throws it out. A batter can ask the umpire to check a ball at any time. If an umpire suspects that the pitcher has been doctoring the baseball, he can immediately eject him from the game. In addition, the pitcher is automatically suspended for 10 games. If the NFL had a similar rule, it wouldn’t need the new complicated rules. But the NFL has a habit of overcomplicating things. If nuclear power plants operated like the NFL we would sleep better at night.

In addition to making a laughingstock of the league, the new rules accomplish something else: they further undermine the NFL’s case against Brady. The league already has an uphill battle in federal court to convince the judge that it acted in accordance with the terms of the Collective Bargaining Agreement when it imposed the original four-game suspension against Brady. Furthermore, Commissioner Roger Goodell will have difficulty showing that he was unbiased in the appeal process when he upheld the suspension. The league will have additional difficulty defending against a challenge by the NFLPA that it violated its own standards in punishing Brady so severely for being “generally aware” that someone tampered with game balls.

By adopting the new rules, the NFL is all but admitting that its old rules were vaguely written, inconsistently applied and poorly enforced, what lawyers sometimes refer to as an admission against interest. Therefore, if Brady broke a rule—which is already in doubt—by changing that rule so dramatically the NFL is conceding that his violation didn’t merit a suspension for a quarter of the season. In other words, the league will have to explain why, if inflation levels and security of game balls was so important, it didn’t adopt more specific guidelines and enforce them prior to DeflateGate.

The new rules regarding game balls may not eliminate future DeflateGates, but they paint the NFL as incompetent and make the original punishment metered out to Brady look silly. Those dual accomplishments shouldn’t be so easy for a league that generates $10 billion a year in revenue.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

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