Can the NFL get out of its own way?

Deflated balls latest black eye for professional football

There are so many great storylines going into Super Bowl XLIX – Tom Brady’s record-setting sixth appearance in the championship game and the opportunity to join Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw as the only quarterbacks to have won four titles in the Super Bowl era; Russell Wilson, who is 10-0 against Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, possibly becoming the first quarterback ever to win two Super Bowls in his first three years; New England trying to win their first Super Bowl in a decade; and Seattle’s attempt to become the first back-to-back champions since New England did it in the 2003 and 2004 seasons. However, it seems all the focus is on the Patriots’ balls.

After the AFC title game, the vanquished Indianapolis Colts complained that the Patriots’ footballs were underinflated in their 45-7 loss. NFL specifications say game balls must be inflated to 12½ to 13½ pounds of pressure per square inch. An underinflated ball is softer and, supposedly, easier to throw and catch, especially in foul weather, as was the case when heavy rain fell during much of the game.

If only the league had a cadre of unbiased representatives at each and every game to make sure they are played correctly without an illegal advantage. I mean, maybe it should be a rule that one of these representatives, for sake of argument let’s call him the umpire, should touch, hold and place the ball in position on the field before each play to ensure things are legit, then something like deflated balls wouldn't be an issue. Am I right?

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Wait, what? The league has seven officials operating at each game to ensure fairness? And the Umpire sets the ball before each play? Well, why didn't the umpire, or any of the other six officials who handled the ball after each and every Patriot play, notice, say or do anything if their footballs didn’t measure up? How did this become an issue? And why have so many issues arisen this season?

The simple answer is the NFL gives too much latitude to teams regarding game balls. The referee inspects each team’s footballs 2 hours and 15 minutes before kickoff, marks each ball that passes inspection and returns approved balls to each team for use when their offense is on the field. That gives each team roughly two hours before kickoff to handle the ball and possibly make alterations.

After a late first half interception, the Colts balked at the feel and shape of the Patriots’ balls. At halftime, with the Pats up 17-7, the officials found 11 of New England’s 12 game balls were up to two pounds less than the minimum required pressure. (There hasn’t been mention if the officials also tested the Colts’ balls.) In the second half, with referee-approved footballs, New England outscored Indy 28-0.

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It can’t be lost that initial reports of underinflated footballs after the game originated with Indianapolis-based media, which made it sound as if the Patriots played the entire game with underinflated footballs.

Call me jaded, but it sounds like whining from a sore loser, kind of similar to the bounty cacophony that erupted out of Minneapolis after the New Orleans Saints defeated the Minnesota Vikings en route to winning Super Bowl XLIV. (Unfortunately for the Saints, the league was looking for a get tough opportunity to show it was doing something to stem the high tide of concussion-related injures to former NFL players and the team was singled out and punished harshly on flimsy evidence.)  

If the Patriots are found to have deflated the balls in the two hours before kickoff, some blame must be put on New England – but only a portion. A fine would seem reasonable. The vast majority of blame, however, belongs to the NFL for allowing its teams the latitude to break rules it should be able to easily enforce.

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“Defending the shield” and “protecting the integrity of the game” have been buzz phrases of Roger Goodell since he became NFL commissioner in 2006.  But his seems to be the most scandal-ridden administration in league history. This is a problem when it comes to the league’s credibility and each team’s bottom line.

The NFL makes $10 billion annually, and Goodell’s goal is to reach $25 billion.

According to Forbes magazine’s August 2014 issue, the average NFL team is worth $1.43 billion – 23 percent more than in the previous year, and in 2013 generated record revenue of $299 million and record operating income of $53 million. The 32 franchises range in value from the Dallas Cowboys at $3.2 billion, with $560 million in revenue and $246 million in operating income, to the St. Louis Rams at $930 million, with $250 million in revenue and $16 million in operating income.

 After winning its first Super Bowl last season, the Seahawks value increased 23 percent from $1.081 billion in 2013 to $1.33 billion in 2014. A nine-figure increase year-over-year is spectacular, and no doubt what each owner aspires to. But integrity is needed to ensure the game is not only respected, but also fair to both sides.

The 2014 season is one the NFL would soon like to forget. In September, the league experienced its “worst week ever” when video of one player battering his spouse and photos of a four-year-old child beaten at the hands of his NFL-playing father emerged. Four months later, those instances, for the most part, have been put in the rearview mirror. Now, the roar is all about air pressure. Once again in this public relations disaster of a season, the NFL has a big black eye that could have, and should have, been easily avoided.

The fix is simple. Allow each team to supply their own game balls, but once inspected give them to a league official to handle until the game is finished. If it means additional part-time hires for league games, so be it. The NFL is flush with cash – more than enough to ensure practices are put in place to limit potential damage to a sport that so many love.   





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