Deflategate, or the anatomy of a public lynching
The story of the purported deflation of footballs by the New England Patriots is increasingly looking like an ambiguous fact turned into a fabricated major scandal. Fueled by many who begrudge the Patriots their success, and by a media ever in search of an audience-making scandal, fans across the country have “piled on”, feasting upon unauthorized leaks, ambiguous information, and personal venom to convict the Patriots of systematic cheating, often gloating over the ability to therefore devalue their historical successes.
None have been more egregious in their unqualified promotion of deflategate and in excoriating the Patriots for once again proving to be the cheaters he knows them to be, than the popular sports commentator at WFAN, Mike Francesa. A man who is clearly quite intelligent, and superbly well-informed about professional football, he obviously was convinced of the Patriots guilt from day one. He showed no evident concern about clarifying the facts before reaching a conclusion, making continual reference to unnamed ex-Patriots who attest to the Patriots continual violation of the rules, regular mention of their having been found guilty of Spygate as supporting evidence, arrogant dismissal of all who offered alternative interpretations, including disparaging, and even ridiculing all remarks made by Brady, Belicheck, and Kraft.
An impartial observer might have interpreting Brady’s initial light-hearted dismissal of charges of playing with deflated footballs as an honest surprise at the issue even being raised. And then, one might have interpreted his hesitant performance several days later, after the issue had become a focus of national attention, as an honest expression of his inability to explain what might have happened. And similarly with Belicheck’s press conference. And then, one might have taken seriously the claims presented by Belicheck in his report of the Patriots’s internal investigation. And, even more, such an observer might have reflected that Belicheck would be opening himself to a far more serious attack on his credibility with this press conference if he did not honestly believe that they were not guilty of intentionally deflating the footballs. But, having already convicted the Patriots of cheating, Francesa read each of these events as proof of their obvious guilt, and did not even seriously entertain an alternative interpretation. No thoughtful questions about the effects of weather on air pressure, nor on the effects of differential prior treatment of footballs, nor documentation of the actual condition of the footballs before the game, of their air pressure when “tested” by the referee, nor questions as to whether the referee actually used a guage to measure the pre-game air pressure on all 24 footballs, among other facts that he might reasonably have considered. None need be considered by him, since he already “knew” the truth.
Of course, Mike Francesa was not the only one who seemed more than happy to jump to the conclusion of Patriot guilt. Such people were rampant, among fans and experts, such as Chris Mortenson and Peter King. But as Tom Brady noted, this is not about ISIS, and nobody has been killed, so this, in an important sense, is a tempest in a teapot. Football is after all just a game, not a life and death affair. And the related issue of air pressure is probably not that big a deal, either. And further, scientific. evidence now shows that the weather can have such an effect on air pressure. (As chance would have it, my wife and I just bought a Super Bowl balloon a couple of hours ago for our little Super Bowl party. As soon as we left the store and went out doors and into our car we noticed that the balloon was severely under inflated, and considered returning it. But we were too lazy, and drove away. But as soon as the car warmed up, we saw the balloon re-inflate, and we were even concerned that it might burst.) The really interesting and important aspect of this whole affair, however, is the ease with which the media itself can inflate a controversy, and be used to, and promote, a rush to judgement in the service of often nefarious interests. This is simply a most recent example of the way that a media orchestrated popular stampede can override common sense and a concern for the facts, and rational judgement, as, for example, was the case when the Bush Administration orchestrated its campaign to invade Iraq and remove Saddam Hussein. We are continuing to pay for that disastrous use of the media — of which the creation of ISIS is only the most obvious result — and will no doubt continue to be paying for that imperial manipulation for years to come. As for those in the media who propelled this latest fiasco, such as Mike Francesa, will we see any public acknowledgement of his malfeasance, or will he seek to justify himself by blaming a league cover-up, which, of course, the NFL is quite capable of engaging in.