Why is the Mayweather vs. Pacquiao scandal erupting now?

Mere hours before the most highly anticipated boxing match of the decade, a scandal erupted. Two prominent journalists from ESPN and CNN have had their press credentials, those magical passes which grant them access not just to the arena but to the fighters themselves to ask questions before and after the fight unexpectedly revoked. Fellow journalists around the world and internet have rallied to their defense. #boycotthefight began trending on Twitter. What’s the fuss about? The short answer is that the two journalists in question are women and the fighter who is being blamed for pulling their credentials is a well known abuser of women. The long answer? Well, about that long answer…

As with many situations in life, it’s helpful to tell one of my father’s jokes.

A person from a big city is visiting some friends of theirs who live in a tiny town. She gets in at night and enjoys a few hours of sitting by the fire and drinking beer while letting her friends regale her with all the scandalous goings on of their small town. She learns about the Smith’s strange sexual proclivities, the Borden’s habit of sleep driving, that Dan Trent is cheating on his wife with his dental hygienist, and many many more stories. In the morning, the big city visitor awakes, refreshed after a good sleep. She walks down to the breakfast table where her hosts are already eating. They’re laughing at something in the local paper. The visitor asks what it is. She’s told that the local gossip columnist has printed a story outing Dan Trent as being a cheater. The visitor says, “but that’s not news, you told me everyone in town already knew about that. Why do they bother printing it and what’s so funny about reading something you already know?” Her friend wipes the tears from his eyes and says, “Yes dear, we already know everything, but we still like to know who got caught!”

Classic Dad joke. Not funny, per se, but useful nonetheless. The problem with the presently erupting scandal is that we already knew that Floyd Mayweather was a misogynist, egotist with a long history of abusing women. Why should it matter now that he “gets caught.”  That’s all this is — it’s society “catching” someone for something we already knew about. On one hand, this is good. The more abusers we collectively shame, even if we can’t lock them up, the better. On the other hand, manufacturing outrage now feels hypocritical — as if revoking press passes were some how worse than abuse.

For background on Mayweather, please read some or all of these articles, they are both wonderful writing and much needed journalism. Thanks to those who wrote them.

The Boxer and the Batterer

by Louisa Thomas for Grantland

If you only read one thing about Floyd Mayweather or this fight or boxing in general or just anything at all this weekend, this should be your choice. Thomas writes a completely engaging, objective, and most of all, true story about the contradiction of a man whose boxing success has been built by controlling his rage within the ring, who expresses his rage freely on the faces and bodies of women in his life.

On Saturday, Mayweather will take on Manny Pacquiao in a fight that has quickly become the biggest, most important event in recent boxing history. What’s so striking to me isn’t the spectacle of it but the dissonance around it. A sport that is increasingly marginal is dominating SportsCenter. A fight in a stadium that holds only 16,800 and is available only on pay-per-view could generate $300 million. A boxer who wins like a dancer allegedly beats women like a pugilist.

What are you supposed to do with this?

This Is How Las Vegas Protects Floyd Mayweather


by Diana Moskovitz for Deadspin

A long, exhaustive, and brilliant investigative attempt to counteract Mayweather’s refrain that if he had really abused women, there would be pictures of it.

There are pictures, though. In at least two cases of domestic violence, official records show pictures were taken. In one case, a police report explicitly says that the photos show a victim’s injuries. But authorities in Las Vegas, a city poised to make millions off Floyd this weekend, have either destroyed the photos or haven’t released them.

This is perhaps the cruelest part of the victims Mayweather chooses. They’re mostly women who have emotional relationships with him, sometimes even children with him. They still care for him, despite the bruises, concussions, and death threats, because domestic violence is a cycle of power and control that is difficult to escape. Like many domestic abusers, Mayweather wins them back with apologies, lavish gifts, and promises he’ll never do it again—taking advantage of his power and control over them—and then hits them again.

The same feelings that make it so hard to break out of an abusive relationship make it hard to release the surest proof that Mayweather beats women. It’s easy to throw everything you have at a stranger on the street who slugs you in the face. It’s not easy to do the same with the father of your children.

Floyd Mayweather Bans Michelle Beadle, Rachel Nichols From Covering Bout

by Daniel Roberts for Deadspin

The best article (at this time) about today’s scandal.

Stop and process this for a moment. Showtime has denied press credentials to two of the most prominent reporters for three of the world’s most important television outlets, including HBO, which is co-producing the fight, and ESPN, which has invested huge chunks of its prime schedule this week promoting the fight in infomercial-like fashion.

While it is Mayweather’s team that is pulling the strings, it’s Showtime that owes the world an explanation. Why have they continued to sanitize their coverage of Mayweather’s history of domestic violence while continuing to unhesitatingly promote other aspects of his outside-the-ring lifestyle? Why did they allow Mayweather to air a one-sided self-produced infomerical in which he denied any responsibility for his convictions? Why are they blackballing important female journalists for having the temerity to question Mayweather about what everyone else seems to recognize is a legitimate topic…

What is this football deflation story about?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can you explain the big story that’s going around right now about the New England Patriots intentionally deflating footballs? What the what?


Dear Adam,

When I was a kid, my Dad taught me a joke about a lawsuit between two Russian neighbors. We’ll call them Laskutin Kvetoslav Konstantinovich and Ungern Zinoviy Georgiy (this random Russian name generation website is insane!) Anyway, Laskutin sues Ungern, claiming that Ungern borrowed a cooking pot from him and returned it with a big hole in the bottom of the pot. The case goes to trial. Ungern, who happens to be a lawyer, represents himself and wins the case after arguing that the hole was in the pot when he borrowed it, the pot was in perfect condition when he returned it, and he never even borrowed the pot!

The joke (did you laugh?) is meant to poke fun at the insanity of a legal system that, by only requiring the creation of doubt about the truth to acquit a defendant, encourages lawyers to use many different arguments, even if they contradict themselves. The biggest story in football today is a scandal being variously called, “deflate-gate” and “ball-ghazi”. Even if you don’t follow football, you’ve probably heard or seen something about this. I’ll give a quick summary of the story and then explain why it reminds me so much of my Dad’s joke.

During the New England Patriots 45-7 win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game, Colts linebacker D’Quell Jackson intercepted a pass from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. After running to his own sidelines with the ball, Jackson handed the ball to a Colts equipment manager who noticed that the ball seemed under-inflated. He mentioned it to someone who mentioned it to someone else until it became a thing. What we now believe to be true, based on a leak from the NFL itself, as reported by Chris Mortensen on ESPN, is that 11 of the 12 balls the Patriots used on offense were significantly under-inflated.

That may not seem like much, but that’s basically the whole story. The NFL is investigating the incident and will surely be heard from sometime before the Super Bowl. In the meantime, sports fans and the sports media are in full-on freak out mode. Some are saying that this is the biggest cheating scandal since the last time the Patriots were punished for cheating in the 2007 Spygate scandal and that the Patriots should be both ashamed of themselves and punished by the league. Others are saying that this is totally normal and not a big deal. Shockingly, part of what’s helping people decide which side to be on is whether they root for the Patriots or not. In any event, partially because it’s an interesting story and partially because the two-week gap before the Super Bowl is hard to fill with stories, this has become the biggest thing in the sports world right now.

How could this happen? What happens to football before and during a game?

A reasonable person might assume that the NFL itself would be in charge of providing footballs for each game and that their officials would be in charge of handling the balls to ensure they are not tampered with. That’s not true. Like many things about football, the rules that govern the football used in a game are Byzantine and bizarre. Even in articles from reputable sources, there are discrepancies about how it’s supposed to work, but as far as I can gather, this is basically what is supposed to happen:

  • Before the game, each team brings 12 (24 if there is bad weather predicted) balls to the refs. These balls don’t have to be new, they can be handled, scuffed up, or conditioned by the teams.
  • 135 minutes (why? who knows?) before the game, the refs check the balls to make sure they are inflated properly — between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. This can be done with either a pressure gauge or a scale or both. If the balls are off, the refs inflate them or deflate them themselves. When they are good, the refs initial them with a sharpie before giving them back to the teams’ equipment managers or ball-boys. Read a behind-the-scenes account of this here.
  • During the game, each team uses their own twelve (or 24) balls when they are on offense.
  • Since 1999, the league itself has provided special kicking balls to be used by both teams’ kickers and punters. These balls, sometimes called ‘K’ balls, are brand new but each team is given 45 minutes under supervision of a referee to mess with the kicking balls before the game.

As you can tell, the rules seem to be written with the intention of allowing teams (primarily quarterbacks, since they handle the ball the most during the game) to customize the balls they are going to use on offense within reason. Otherwise, why wouldn’t the league simply provide brand new balls for each game and keep them under supervision throughout the game?

Okay, now tell us why this is like that joke

Imagine that instead of two Russians, it’s the Patriots who are in court and need to come up with a defense. So far, the Patriots have not said much about this issue other than that they will cooperate with the league investigation. If they were to defend themselves and they had Ungern as their lawyer, he might argue that tampering with the balls is totally normal and everyone does it, that sure, they deflated the balls but no one really knows whether deflating the balls would provide an advantage, and that you can’t prove they did anything to the balls anyway!

Everyone does it

In most arenas, this is not the best defense against cheating but in sports it seems to fare a little bit better. Sports is a culture where rule-breaking is acceptable up to a certain point. You’ll often hear football announcers say that there is “holding on every play.” It’s true, if referees decided to apply the strict letter of the law, they could call a penalty on every play. What ends up happening is that in every game, there is a level of holding that is accepted and what really gets called is holding more blatant than normal. No one thinks a player that holds is cheating. The same thing might be true about doctoring footballs but until this scandal, it wasn’t widely known. Since this scandal has broken out, we’ve heard reports that quarterback Brad Johnson paid $7,500 before the Super Bowl in 2003 to scuff up the balls to his liking. Deadspin dug up some footage of announcers discussing a conversation they had with Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers who told them that he likes to inflate his teams footballs past the legal limit and hope that the referees don’t catch him. If tampering with footballs is normal (and the NFL has certainly created rules and an enforcement plan with enough wiggle room to allow for this) than the worst we could say about the Patriots is that they tampered more blatantly than normal and got caught.

Deflating the balls didn’t help

Everyone in football seems to have strongly held beliefs about the condition of the football but what’s the truth? Does over-inflating the ball make it fly faster and straighter, easier to hold on to, and better to catch? Aaron Rodgers thinks so. Or is it under-inflating the ball that makes all of those things better? Tom Brady certainly thinks that is true. In 2011 he was quoted as saying he loved when teammate Rob Gronkowski spikes the ball, “because I like the deflated ball. But I feel bad for that football, because he puts everything he can into those spikes.” But what the heck does he know? In a 2006 New York Times article by Judy Battista, a quarterback who played with Brady mentions that Brady likes his balls, “so broken in that it looked as if he had been using them since junior high school” and that Brady insists on rubbing the balls down before using them to rid them of a substance that coats the balls when they are made. Brady was quotes as saying, “The preservative on the football, when you get it off, it’s easier to get a grip.” This is despite the fact that the maker of the balls is quoted as saying in that same article that that substance makes the balls “about as sticky as a Post-it note, and that improves the grip.”

Meanwhile, in the universe of kickers, there seems to be a similar disagreement. A Business Insider article by Tony Manfred reports that “In 1999, the NFL switched to special “K balls” for special teams plays because they were paranoid that players were manipulating regular balls to make them fly higher and straighter” and quotes from a Sports Illustrated article (now lost from posterity because they basically destroyed their online archive) saying that “New footballs are hard, unforgiving, smallish (with a correspondingly small sweet spot) and coated with a film that makes them slippery. They don’t travel as far as game-worn balls, and they can’t be “guided” as accurately as roundish, softer balls. When you see a kicker squeeze a ball, it’s because he wants to soften it and make it rounder.” But wait, but wait, now that the Patriots are accused of being cheaters, Jason La Canfora writes for CBS in this article that sources of his from the Baltimore Ravens are complaining that in their game against the Patriots, “Baltimore’s kicking and punting units were not getting their normal depth and distance, and some believed the balls they were using may have been deflated.”

So, which is it? Is a soft ball better or a hard ball? Is there a scientist in the house?

The league can’t prove anything

It’s going to be difficult for the NFL to prove wrong-doing in this case. Oh, the circumstantial evidence is pretty strong that someone did something to those balls on behalf of the Patriots but how and when, unless they were caught on video doing it, is going to be tough to prove. Were the balls under-inflated to begin with and the refs simply didn’t notice or didn’t care until the Colts complained? Were the balls properly inflated, approved, and then later doctored by a member of the Patriots? If so, who was it? Did any of the key players or coaches ask for this to happen or did a ball-boy or equipment manager do it himself?

At best, the league may be able to prove that someone tampered with the balls but not exactly who. In that case, I think that the NFL should tread somewhat lightly on this issue. It would be tough to come down hard on the Patriots, arguing that the lack of institutional control needed to prevent this type of tampering is itself worthy of serious punishment. After all, it’s still widely thought that the NFL was seriously negligent at best and totally corrupt at worst in its handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse case in the past year.

Short-term, I can’t imagine that this story will affect the Super Bowl. The game between the Colts and Patriots will not be replayed, nor will the Patriots be barred from playing the Super Bowl. Coach Bill Belichick may be suspended but my guess is that the suspension would start after the Super Bowl is over. There will definitely be fines or draft picks that get taken away, but not organization changing ones. The rules governing balls will almost definitely be changed to prevent this from happening again and football will keep flying along, under, over, or properly inflated.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

p.s. In case you’re looking for humor about deflate-gate that actually makes you laugh, take a look at this or this.

Why Does Vladimir Putin Have a Super Bowl Ring?

From the how-weird-can-it-get files, this story is about whether or not the Russian politician Vladimir Putin stole an NFL Championship ring from the owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft.

The story begins in the summer of 2005 when Robert Kraft went on a trip to Russia. The New England Patriots, then (as now) one of the best teams in the National Football League, had just won their third Super Bowl in four years. Vladimir Putin’s record was almost as good as Kraft’s. Elected in 2000 after his predecessor Boris Yeltsin resigned unexpectedly, Putin had just been reelected in 2004 with 71% of the vote. At the end of a day of meetings between Putin, Kraft, and other American businessmen, something happened and Putin ended up with Kraft’s Super Bowl ring.

What’s in a ring? Most team sports leagues, including the NFL, give out a trophy to the championship team. There is also a tradition that the winning organization rewards its own players and coaches with gaudy championship rings as a celebration of the winning season. These rings have become a sort of jockish short-hand representing the championships themselves. One common factor in arguments about how to rate a player is “how many rings does he or she have?” Athletes use the word like this too, as in the famous rejoinder, ““I can’t hear what Jeremy says, because I’ve got my two Stanley Cup rings plugging my ears” by hockey goalie Patrick Roy when taunted by Jeremy Roenick, a good player but one who had never won championships like Roy had.

The exact series of events that led to Putin possessing Kraft’s ring was never completely clear, even in 2005. In the Boston Globe article Donovan Slack wrote that it could be “an international incident of sorts, a misunderstanding of Super Bowl proportions. Or it could be a very, very generous gift.” Despite Kraft’s statement a few days later that he, “decided to give him the ring as a symbol of the respect and admiration that I have for the Russian people and the leadership of President Putin.” there was always a certain mystery around the incident.

In a wonderful profile of Kraft’s wife Myra in 2007, the New York Times reported her version of the story which involved an off-color remark by Putin that he could “kill someone” with the ring before more or less walking off with it, to her husband’s dismay. The story of the ring being a gift was a cover-up to avoid an international incident, she said.

The story resurfaced this week when Robert Kraft finally confirmed his now deceased wife’s version of the story, even adding some henchmen into the mix: “I put my hand out and he put it in his pocket, and three KGB guys got around him and walked out.”

Just to make things even more scandalous, Putin responded to the story today through spokesperson and witness Dmitry Peskov, who said that “what Mr. Kraft is saying now is weird.” As reported by CNN, the metric system-obsessed spokesman remembered that he “was standing 20 centimeters away from him and Mr. Putin and saw and heard how Mr. Kraft gave this ring as a gift.”

What will happen next? Who knows! But it’s truly a great world that creates the headline “Putin denies stealing Kraft’s Super Bowl ring” and puts it on the front page of ESPN.