Was Deflategate NFL misdirection?

Remember Deflategate? The scandal that rocked the National Football League (NFL) world for the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl? Just hours after the ACF Conference Championship game (one of the NFL’s two semifinals) word started to spread on Twitter that league authorities were going to be investigating the Patriots for illicitly manipulating their set of footballs to gain a competitive advantage. For the next two weeks, we learned more about the NFL’s process for providing, handling, and manipulating the footballs that each team uses when they play offense than we ever thought necessary. We heard from physicists and statisticians. Billions of words were spoken and written about this story — how serious of an offense was it? how should it be penalized? how does it change the legacy of the Patriots as a team and franchise? of coach Bill Belichick? of quarterback Tom Brady? Then, finally, on the day of the Super Bowl, news came out from NFL sources, that of the 12 balls the Patriots provided and used, 10 were inflated only slightly under the permitted lower limit and only one was significantly under-inflated. This was an almost complete reversal from what we thought we had known for the previous thirteen days, which was that 11 of the 12 balls were significantly under-inflated. Of course, now that the Super Bowl is over, most people have moved on from this controversy. It’s left me wondering though: how much was Deflategate NFL misdirection? Is it possible that the NFL used this half-scandal the way a magician would use a harmless explosion — to distract from more important and revealing subjects?

It’s not an argument that Cyd Ziegler of Outsports makes about the apparent black-balling of gay football player Michael Sam, but he easily could. Instead, Ziegler makes a determined, unrelenting, well-researched, and ultimately convincing case that Michael Sam has been denied an equitable chance to play in the NFL because of his sexual orientation. Read the article, read the article, but even if you don’t, read Ziegler’s conclusion:

The answer to the question I’ve posed to so many – Why is Michael Sam not with an NFL team? – is also likely the most obvious one: because he’s openly gay. Defensive ends with the same size and the same speed – yet with less production in college and the NFL preseason – are in the NFL and Sam is not because he’s gay and he just won’t stop being gay.

The question I would like to pose to NFL executives is this. Knowing that you were distinctly vulnerable to criticism on big social issues like providing employment opportunity free of discrimination to people of all sexual orientations and your season-long struggle to come up with and stick to a coherent policy on domestic abuse, did you gleefully glom onto a much less meaningful controversy about deflated footballs and keep fueling it through the two-week period before the Super Bowl that is often used as a referendum on the stories of the season and the state of the NFL? If you knew that only one of the 11 under-inflated footballs was more than marginally below the permitted range, which you must have known when you tested them at halftime of the game, why did you only correct the story that all 11 we’re significantly under-inflated on the day of the Super Bowl?

I’m simultaneously interested in figuring out if the NFL chose to use Deflategate as misdirection so people would not be thinking or writing about more serious topics leading up to the Super Bowl and also happy that people like Cyd ZIegler are focused on what is important.

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