How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Deflategate

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What really happened? They ask the question on TV and on talk radio, on Facebook and in the funny pages, in blog comments and in the New York Times. They ask it on SportsCenter and First Take and PTI and Around the Horn. They ask it on Today and they ask it on The Tonight Show and they ask it on Good Morning America and they ask it on Last Week Tonight. Boomer asks it and Whoopi asks it and many, many people named Mike ask it. They ask it whether or not they ever ask it directly. Occasionally, and by accident, they may ask someone who knows the answer. The rest of the time, they ask people who do not know the answer, and it makes not a shred of difference, because the main lessons to be drawn from the Deflategate scandal as it spreads through 2015 are, first, that everything is true simultaneously, and second, that the differences between two competing truths are mostly a matter of inflection.

What really happened? Well, I’ll tell you, Gooch, how it looks to me is …

What really happened? If Tom Brady doesn’t stand up and defend his good name, then I’ll tell you what …

What really happened? Mikey, the Patriots are the best team in the National Football League, and anyone who says different is jealous …

What really happened? “I think a fairer reading of this statement, which I think is revealing, is that they were trying to do these other analyses and determine whether these transient analyses were sufficient on their own to explain the difference in difference.”

This last answer is quoted from the expert testimony of Ted Snyder, the dean of the Yale School of Management, in IN THE MATTER OF: THOMAS BRADY, the transcript of a hearing released earlier this week as part of the NFL Players Association’s legal effort to have Brady’s four-game suspension overturned. IN THE MATTER OF … fills 457 pages of text, collated into 172 sheets. It includes dozens of pages of sworn testimony from Brady himself, under questioning from one or another of the 16 lawyers and two agents whose names head the transcript. Questions and answers were recorded by Joshua B. Edwards, RDR, CRR, CLR, Notary Public of the State of New York, and delivered before Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, who chimes in at 12:35 p.m. to coordinate a lunch break. Brady does not try to explain the difference in difference. He does talk about “the irony of everything,” the irony in this case being that he prefers a loose grip on the football, the football in this case being everything, as usual.

It seemed to me, reading this, that there were some other directions in which the phrase “the irony of everything” might veer in Deflategate’s vicinity. It seemed to me that “the irony of everything” might refer to the process by which a few missing teaspoons of air in some footballs became a gale of talk sweeping across the nation, a process so multiplicative that it almost seemed alchemical. It struck me that “the irony of everything” might refer to the process by which America’s professional talkers allowed themselves to become obsessed (unironically) by something called the ideal gas law. The dean of the Yale School of Management and 16 lawyers and two agents and several hundred TV pundits were talking about pressure and volume and pounds per square inch and the vibration of gas in space, and it struck me that if you had not come in at the beginning of this story, you might get the idea that all of this talk was really about talking, that what was being described and debated at such phenomenal length was only speech itself.

This, too, I thought, might be the “irony of everything.” I thought so for another hundred pages. An hour later, though, as “one of the leading experts in statistical analysis in the world” and “one of the most respected academic people in this country” — Snyder, as described by Brady’s lawyer — was talking about p-value and variance and the flat part of the curve, I realized I was missing the point. Irony, I realized, had no place in Deflategate. Irony depended on some things being untrue. As an intellectual perspective, irony is less adaptable than science. Irony does not testify. Irony sees the frenzy generated by a slightly underinflated ball in a game that mostly consists of large millionaires pushing each other, and irony calls for an ambulance.

On page 363, I got out of the ambulance and floated into the light. Another expert witness, this one representing the opposite opinion, had just said “there is a difference there and that difference is most likely the differences … ,” and it came over me in a flash that the only way to understand Deflategate was to understand it ecstatically, the way you understand a sunset or a hurricane. To understand Deflategate ecstatically was to accept everything about it at the same time. It was to accept IN THE MATTER OF: THOMAS BRADY as a black eye for Goodell and the NFL, because certain key points in the testimony emphasized what was misleading in the league’s previous framing of events. It was also to accept a comment reading “cry cry cry….time to grow up Tom Brady and to quit with the mega spin machine and own up,” which got 33 upvotes on ProFootballTalk.

A banner reading "Comm. Goodell Jet Home to N.Y." that was towed by a plane at Biddeford Municipal Airport on August 2.

Carl D. Walsh/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images A banner reading “Comm. Goodell Jet Home to N.Y.” that was towed by a plane at Biddeford Municipal Airport on August 2.

What really happened? You have to understand that Brady is just a pawn in Goodell’s game to placate the owners by kneecapping Robert Kraft …

What really happened? Boohoo, some pretty-boy QB with a supermodel wife got caught cheating and can’t take the heat …

What really happened? Bro, the Pats could have won that game with a bowling ball …

What really happened? “I can’t speculate to something that I was never there for that I never saw that I never talked about.”

That last answer is Brady, on page 137, and if we were still looking for the irony of everything, that quote would be a doozy of a contender. By page 375, though, I was no longer thinking at all about irony. I had given myself up to the 16 lawyers, to the two agents, to the 30-minute lunch break, to the unexplained difference in difference. We were flying over America, sweeping westward on the wind of talk. There was Chicago, there was Detroit. We were commenting. We were speculating. We were clicking thumbs-up and thumbs-down. We were turning facts into opinions and opinions into facts. The cars crawled along on the expressway beneath us, and we were the sound of the airwaves, humming with Poncho and the Stooge, Dave and Dale, the Polecat and McBean. We were coming to you live on 1077 The Fan. We were first-time callers and longtime listeners. We were edgy. We were angry. We were football and we knew what we were talking about. We knew that the Patriots were cheaters and that everyone envied the Patriots. We knew that Brady was an asshole golden boy and that Brady was a really good guy. We knew the p-value and the variance. We knew where we were on the flat part of the curve. Goodell was a hollow puppet and Bill Belichick was a scheming mastermind and we saw all of it and we knew why it mattered.

It mattered because it was football. “It’s football,” I said to myself. “It’s the National Football League.” Football mattered because football was the thing that mattered; that was football’s role, just as it was our role to amplify football. If this seemed insane, you had your facts wrong. You had the wrong opinions. “The sum total of reality is the world,” Wittgenstein said. “Alls I can go by is what they told me,” Brady said. We cleared the Plains and saw the Rockies in the distance. There would be a day, soon, when the game would start up again, when an offensive line would collide with a defensive line and a quarterback would drop back to pass. It seemed a long way away. From up here, the difference in difference was America, and America was football. Football was when you knew what really happened. America was when you asked what really happened? and had to answer yes.

Filed Under: NFL, Deflategate, Tom Brady, New England Patriots, Roger Goodell, Football, p-value

Brian Phillips is a staff writer for Grantland.

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