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Could the NFL be covering for its officials with Deflategate?

Larry Brown Sports logo Larry Brown Sports 1/23/2015 From Yardbarker
It is possible that the NFL is covering for the negligence of the officials of the Patriots-Colts game. © Elsa/Getty Images It is possible that the NFL is covering for the negligence of the officials of the Patriots-Colts game.

By Steve DelVecchio

Does anyone really trust the NFL?

Before I get accused of being a New England Patriots homer, let’s make one thing clear — I’m not saying the Pats are innocent. It is not out of the realm of possibility that Tom Brady and/or other members of the team instructed a ball boy to take air out of the game balls before the AFC Championship Game. The real question on everyone’s mind is when would this have happened.

According to reports, the game balls used by both the Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts were tested before kickoff last Sunday and again at halftime. All of the balls passed inspection before the game, but at least 11 of the Patriots’ balls were reportedly 2.0 PSI under-inflated at halftime. The NFL has also reportedly determined that the balls were deflated by humans, not Mother Nature.

If all of that information is accurate, someone had to have deflated all or almost all of New England’s game balls in the roughly two-hour window between the time they were tested and kickoff. Earlier this week, a former NFL ball boy helped shed some light on how the process of inspecting game balls before kickoff works.

Eric Kester, who worked as a ball boy for the Chicago Bears in 2003, said part of his job was to work with the quarterback before the game to prepare the balls.

“We would then work with the quarterbacks to customize the balls to their liking,” Kester told Monica Alba of NBC News. “This involved scrubbing them with stiff horsehair brushes to rub off the leather’s slippery silicone sheen, and occasionally inflating or deflating the balls a very small amount, which I believe is legal to a degree. Quarterbacks are very particular about the way a ball feels in their hand, and we worked meticulously to match their particular preferences.”

We knew all that, but the next thing Kester said strikes me as incredibly interesting. Based on his experiences, the referees did not always stick a pressure gauge into every ball.

“I recall them having a pressure gauge in the locker room, but most often they just squeezed the balls, turned them over in their hands a few times each, and inspected the laces,” he explained. “I don’t recall them ever rejecting one of our balls.

“My thought process was, ‘Let’s get the balls exactly the way our quarterback wants them, and if the refs reject one or two before the game, no big deal. But there’s no harm giving them our ideal balls and hoping they make it through inspection.'”

Is it really all that unreasonable to wonder if the officials who checked the balls before the AFC Championship Game went with the “squeeze test” instead of measuring the actual air pressure? And if that did happen, would they admit to the NFL that they did not do their jobs the way they were supposed to?

Kester also explained how difficult it would be for a ball boy to deflate a ball after the inspection, as the game balls were taken out to the field immediately after the officials checked them.

“There was a window, maybe an hour or so, between inspection and game time,” he said. “The balls were out on the field, and it would have been very difficult for me to secretly deflate balls while thousands of fans and media members moved about the stadium. It would also have been very difficult to sneak 12 balls back into the locker room without raising suspicion.

“In my experience, I never knew of a ball boy who tampered with a ball after inspection.”

This is where the NFL has to be extremely careful, and it’s likely the reason we have yet to hear anything official from the league pertaining to the investigation. Just as the league must prove someone from the Patriots intentionally tampered with balls, it must also prove that the referees weren’t negligent.

There have been reports that the Colts were suspicious of the Patriots using under-inflated balls back in November and that the Baltimore Ravens may have tipped off the Colts before the AFC Championship. If that is true, you would assume the NFL would make sure its officials checked New England’s balls with pressure gauges. However, you would also assume that would mean the NFL would have spoken to the Patriots about the suspicions and let them know they were being monitored. Otherwise, the sting operation theory that we discussed with you yesterday might hold weight, which would not be a good look for the league.

There are plenty more questions that need to be answered, and don’t be surprised if the NFL waits until after the Super Bowl to address them.


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