Deflate-gate: Will the air go out of a phony scandal?

Tom Brady of the New England Patriots celebrates after defeating the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 AFC Championship Game on Sunday in Massachusetts.

Story highlights

  • NFL investigating whether New England Patriots used slightly deflated footballs
  • Mike Downey says it's hard to see how the team could have pulled it off

Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune who contributes frequently to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)"Did Patriots Tamper with AFC Championship Ball?" — Monday's top headline on the Indianapolis Star's website

"Don't both teams have to play with the football?" a Facebook friend of mine promptly inquired in a post, mystified as to how the New England Patriots could come under investigation by the National Football League for "deflating" any of the balls used in Sunday's conference championship game versus the Indianapolis Colts.
Mike Downey
A fair question about an unfair tactic, to be sure.
    OK, under further review, let us take a look at this weird, wild, farcical, you-gotta-be-kidding-me "controversy" that has, uh, blown up unexpectedly. It became the talk of talk radio Monday. and you could picture every staff writer employed by Letterman, Fallon, Kimmel and others tapping furiously on their laptops, coming up with joke after joke.
    It was confirmed by an NFL official that the league was looking into the pretty preposterous possibility that balls used in New England's easy 45-7 victory at Gillette Stadium were not adequately inflated.
    Yep, people actually now wonder whether you can get an extra edge from Gillette.
    Patriots superstar quarterback Tom Brady had the question put to him Monday on a radio interview and called it ridiculous, saying, "I think I've heard it all."
    The idea, cockeyed as it is, would be that a football would be considerably easier to catch and grip if it were filled with slightly less air than usual. Particularly in wet, chilly weather like that found on a January evening in Massachusetts.
    To the aforementioned question as to the teams using exactly the same ball -- i.e., so where's the advantage? -- each NFL team, according to Rule 2, Section 2 of league bylaws, will "make 12 primary balls available for testing by the referee 2 hours and 15 minutes prior to the starting time of the game." The home team "will also make 12 backup balls available for testing." Eight other balls, sealed in a box by the manufacturer, are marked by the referee and "used exclusively for the kicking game."
    I don't know if an actual scale is used, like a jockey or a boxer making weight, but a football is supposed to weigh between 14 and 15 ounces.
    If there are weight-loss programs for overweight footballs, this would be the first I have heard of it. "The Biggest Loser" show on NBC could get a whole season out of something like this.
    Naturally, conspiracy theorists could speculate that the Patriots somehow finagled a way into using a deflated ball themselves, giving Mr. Brady a little help, while making sure that the visiting team's quarterback, Andrew Luck of the Colts, had to pass a football that was more tightly inflated than a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade balloon.
    I have never heard of this accusation being made in all the years I have been following professional football. I mean, come on: "Honey, You Didn't Blow Up the Balls?"
    How devious could a team be?
    However, I did indeed have awareness of a similar situation occurring in college football, as recently as 2012. It involved the University of Southern California, a splendid school, my own daughter's alma mater.
    USC was fined $25,000 by its conference for being caught doing exactly that -- messing with the air in the football.
    A student manager was responsible. The university said he did it on his own, apparently without the knowledge of a single other human being in then-Coach Lane Kiffin's football program, deflating no fewer than five footballs to be used in a USC game against Oregon. Three bad balls were discovered by officials before the game, two more at halftime. The kid was later fired, the university was fined and reprimanded by the Pac-12 Conference and, much the way Tom Brady put it Monday, a lot of us ended up saying: "I've heard it all now."
    Turned out (it was news to me at the time) that in college football, schools provide their own footballs, whereas in pro football, the exact same 18 balls are used by both teams. Who knew?
    It is difficult not to laugh at the thought of Bill Belichick, the generally humorless head coach of the Patriots, masterminding some kind of sinister Dr. Evil plot to deflate a certain number of those footballs, then having a co-conspirator somehow sneak the soft balls into the game when New England it was on offense, then the harder balls into the game when Indy had it. "Ha ha ha!" the villainous Belichick would laugh to himself. "I outsmarted them again!"
    Except what are the odds of something like this actually happening?
    I appreciate that the Patriots have been so successful over the years that they have been accused of everything short of spying on their opponents from the Hubble Telescope. I personally believe the Patriots win most of their games because they score more points than the other team does.
    They will be going to another Super Bowl this year, the one coming up February 1 in Glendale, Arizona, because the Pats know how to play football, not how to blow one up.
    Even so, their opponents, the Seattle Seahawks, had better come prepared. I suggest they bring a scale.