Sports

Firn ’16: Reinflating my pride in the Patriots

By
Sports Columnist
Friday, January 23, 2015

For as long as Bill Belichick has been wearing a headset, the New England Patriots have been synonymous with success. There’s a lot for the 21st century Boston sports fan to be proud of, but atop the list is the mindboggling consistency of our football team. Storms come and go, the big fish eat the little fish and the Patriots keep on paddling.

But in the wake of clinching yet another Super Bowl berth, reports of illegally deflated footballs threaten to tarnish the identity of the franchise. Unsurprisingly, statements from both the Patriots and the NFL have been cryptic and terse. For the most part, Patriots fans are standing our ground. But even as we publicly defend our beloved team, we’re privately waiting for mitigating details with bated breath. Is there real reason to doubt the Patriots’ dominance? Worse, have I sacrificed countless hours and my emotional stability in the name of blatant cheaters? I got over Spygate, but two incidents establish a troubling pattern and a suspicious culture.

Like most Pats fans, I dismissed this story when it first broke, chalked it up to sore losers deferring blame. Nothing was going to dampen my excitement for an epic upcoming Super Bowl matchup. I rolled my eyes. I wouldn’t take the bait.

But then murky rumors became embarrassing facts — 11 of 12 Patriots balls substantially below the legal pressure requirement. A couple minor deflations could be a mistake, but 11 imply intent. Someone in the Patriots’ organization willfully altered footballs to create an advantage in the cold weather. But before I’m obligated to admit to feeling betrayed and distraught, is this a big deal?

The answer is complicated. First, let’s discredit the absurd notion that squishy footballs are what beat the Colts last weekend. Colts tight end Dwayne Allen wouldn’t bite: “(It’s) not a story. They could have played with soap for balls and beat us. Simply the better team.” What’s more, tampering with equipment is a fairly common infraction, akin to a pitcher applying pine tar to a baseball. Aaron Rodgers confessed to overinflating. Brad Johnson paid to have Super Bowl footballs scuffed in 2002. The Vikings were caught heating balls on the sidelines earlier this year. Definitely shady, probably ubiquitous and not really a huge deal.

But because we’re talking about the Patriots, it’s kind of a big deal. Belichick has a history of exploiting any advantage he can, legal or otherwise. The Patriots have always been known for pushing limits, but their ingenuity and success typically overshadowed their underhandedness. This latest incident could be the final straw that flips the label to cheaters first and winners second. In the eyes of the NFL Nation, New England’s legacy may crumble.

More than anything, it’s this perception that has me backed into a corner. Yes, I’m embarrassed that Belichick may think he’s bigger than the game. No matter how prevalent or unimpactful, any attempt to skirt the rules leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But the reality is that my Patriots pride is not diminished. Such is the nature of fandom — this is my team, and I will defend it tooth and nail. There’s nothing like controversy to band together a team.

But even if the Patriots smoke the Seahawks in the Super Bowl, the victory will be considered stained by many. To their delight, critics can latch onto something other than the sheer brilliance of the franchise. The real tragedy here is that New England’s incredible track record, the product of tactical genius and hard work, is now being treated as if propped up by minor infractions. Even as we march to the Super Bowl, Patriots fans are forced to defend our pride instead of beaming it. If this is the golden age of Patriots football — and it almost certainly is — I want to remember the dominance, not the scandals.

Of course, there are still plenty of unanswered questions. How could the referees not notice? Is this an isolated incident? Most importantly, who gave the order? Belichick insisted, “in my entire coaching career, [I’ve] never talked to any player or staff member about football air pressure.” Tom Brady also claimed complete innocence. When a similar case was scrutinized at the University of Southern California in 2012, a student manager was found solely responsible. The Patriots can’t be blamed for wrongdoing if the guillotine falls on a ball boy. But cries of unfair advantages will persist, and the mastermind Patriots will be denied the credit they largely deserve.

Over the next few weeks, details will emerge from the NFL’s ongoing investigation, but the narrative likely won’t change. Just like with Spygate, fans will make of it what they will. Haters will chant “Beli-cheat” and discount the Patriots dynasty. Fans will embrace the “Evil Empire” identity and dismiss the accusations as overblown and whiny.

But for now, we wait. The cycle of emotions produced by this incident has taken me from dismissal to defensiveness to shame before settling firmly on defiance. Cheating is not to be taken lightly. If intent is established, those responsible should be punished. But the only reasons Deflategate is a bigger media frenzy than the Vikings episode is that the Pats won’t stop winning and Belichick won’t ever smile. You can hate the Patriots for their shiftiness, but you can’t deny their genius. I’m disconcerted by my team’s behavior, but I’m not apologizing for the wins. Holier-than-thous won’t destroy my excitement for the Super Bowl. They won’t strip me of my fandom. Most of all, they won’t make your team any better.

Mike Firn ’16 wants the Patriots to deflate the Seahawks’ hopes and dreams. Contact him at michael_firn@brown.edu.

Topics:
  • corky p. ’09

    i want 2 deflate in ur butt

  • Anonymous

    First of all, I would like to express my disappointment in “corky p. ’09” for his comment below. Mr. Firn puts a lot of thought into his columns, and as his audience we should respect his voice.

    Secondly, I would like to share my opinion on the content of this article. Let’s start with the premise. If there is one effect that the influx of media and scandals within the NFL has had on me, it is my immunization from the NFL noise. As a die-hard Patriots fan for 18 years and running, I simply don’t care about this story. In fact, I have intentionally disconnected myself from interviews, articles (besides this one), and coverage of the deflating balls. Some would say I have turned a ‘blind eye’. But I can assure you that my eyes are far from blind when I watch my Patriots outplay their opponents practically every week.

    You see, there are two types of NFL fans: the first is the fan who loves the game, analyze the Xs and Os and admire their athletes strive towards a common goal. The second type is the fan who follows the drama, the storylines, and the money-making, emotion sucking entity of Tuesday-Saturday football (let’s face it, Thursday night football isn’t the real thing).

    This ‘scandal’ doesn’t affect the following:
    1) My opinion, perception, pride and loyalty to my New England Patriots.
    2) My opinion of the competitive nature of the NFL.
    3) My excitement for an excellent Super-Bowl matchup.
    Frankly, it doesn’t even deserve my time or energy. Alas I digress.
    Sincerely yours,
    Your anonymous, outspoken fan.

  • TheOnlyThinkingFanInAmerica

    It seems that most observers are either previous haters of the New England franchise, who now delight in saying, “I told you so,” or are Patriot fans who are now digging in deeper than ever in defending their team. I’m always disappointed when people can only embrace their pre-existing biases, rather than impartially evaluate facts, such as they way protestors and counter-protestors reacted even as the facts made it clear Officer Darren Wilson was protecting his own life against Michael Brown. Facts matter, not just pre-existing prejudices, whether regarding law enforcement or the New England Patriots. Most people can only see what they want to see.

    Count me among the rarest of NFL fans, a lifelong Patriots supporter from the heart of Back Bay, who has finally had enough. I’m going to paraphrase Troy Aikman, Mark Brunell, Mike Pereira and several other former NFL quarterbacks and referees: No ball boy or equipment manager in the NFL would take it upon himself to deflate the footballs without explicit direction from a higher-up, almost certainly the starting quarterback, if not others as well.

    My team cheats. It’s as simple as that.

    • Firn ’16

      TheOnlyThinkingFanInAmerica,

      Thanks for your comment. First of all, I’d like to point out that everything to this point is purely speculative. While I’m inclined to agree that a ball boy likely wouldn’t take it upon himself to tamper with equipment before such a huge game, this can’t yet definitively be pinned on the Head Coach. Still, I take your point that it’s reflective of a culture that has been fostered in New England. If Goodell’s handling of Bountygate was any indication, ignorance will not be treated as a viable excuse.

      As I wrote in the final paragraph of my column, if intent is established, the Patriots must be held responsible. There’s no doubt that this team is far more willing than most to bend rules. My main argument ultimately boils down to two points:

      1) Facts of the case won’t change public perception of the incident. Like you said, fans will defend their team and critics will take it as proof that the Pats have been cheating all along. If it is revealed that the Patriots are in fact cheaters, I will be extremely disappointed but I won’t stop rooting for them. As summarized nicely in the anonymous post above, I can disentangle one aspect of my fandom from the other. I can condemn the organization while still rooting for the players to executive their X’s and O’s.

      2) Undeniably, the Patriots are more willing to bend rules than most. But their incredible success over the past 14 years is owed to the fact that this organization is so tactically ahead of its peers. No other sports franchise is so innovative in always thinking 3 steps ahead of the competition. Thus the worst part of the cheater label that the Patriots are earning is not that their legacy is fraudulent, but that the public can now dismiss it as such.

      • TheOnlyThinkingFanInAmerica

        The Patriots are a great team, no question about it. If you’re comfortable with situational ethics, I suppose one could admire the skills of the players on the field even as one criticizes the ethics of the organization. But I wouldn’t be too quick to compartmentalize your thinking about the organizations upon which you bestow your emotional capital.

        You sound a little like my friends who say, “Yes, Harvard is lowering academic standards and recruiting basketball players who wouldn’t be admitted elsewhere in the Ivy League. But it’ll be good for the League in the long run because Harvard is elevating the quality of conference play.”

        Cheating is cheating. I don’t condone what Harvard is doing and, if facts play out as they appear now, I’m not comfortable supporting the Patriots just because they’re “my” team. They stop being “my” team when they start cheating.

        • Firn ’16

          You’re absolutely right – some of what I’ve said is a rationalization due to my pre-conceived notions about the Patriots. But the point of this column wasn’t really to objectively investigate. I’m trying to sift through the emotions responses of a loyal Patriot fan base and anticipate/lament the likely fallouts.

          You are the rational one in this discussion. I am the irrational one. But like you said, you are the rare breed. I’m trying (perhaps ambitiously) to speak for the Patriots fan base. Sports fandom, by definition, produces heavy bias and partisanship. Do I condone cheating? Absolutely not. But when push comes to shove I’m just not going to stop rooting for the Patriots. I’m disappointed in the team, but I’m more concerned about the “cheater” label might wrongfully obscuring the “best franchise in sports” label.

          I don’t disagree with anything you say. I don’t think you are wrong or hold it against you that you’ve taken a different position than me. You are the more logical one. You are the more principled one. But I am the biased fan. And, for better or worse, the sports landscape is teeming with my type while yours is an endangered species. These are just the facts of the case.

          • Anonymous

            I disagree with you “TheOVERThinkingFanInAmerica”. You are so quick to quit on your team just because someone else claims the Patriots “cheated”. How do you define “cheating”. Until it is proven that they cheated (by their own admittance or a governing body), don’t be so quick to side with the haters. Would you disown your own sibling or loved one if they had allegedly committed a crime?
            Mr. Firn, you think his perspective is logical? Logic is defined as following proven fact. In this case, blame is not fact, and blame is not proven.
            Furthermore, you are missing my over-arching point. My Patriots fandom stems from emotions and desires that I have decided to derive. For me, it is about strategy, execution and developing and optimizing a system. Additionally, it is about a positive reinforcement of success and athletic entertainment. This “scandal” affects none of those things for me.
            Did you see the sports-science about deflate-gate? It is statistically proven that the ((standard air-pressure) – (air pressure of those balls)) was not a big enough difference to affect the game. If a tree falls, it doesn’t make a sound. “Cheating” is a human construct.

          • Firn ’16

            Anon,

            I prefaced my very first comment on this thread with the caveat that everything to follow was all speculative. I completely agree that we are jumping the gun here. This is simply a hypothetical discussion about what we as Patriots fans should feel IF our team is found guilty of wrongdoing. On that front, it’s hard to rationally deflect blame. If you do care about ethics, it is not logical to support an unethical team. My point (which is largely in line with your second claim) is that my fandom is something that I’ve cultivated and grown my entire life, and in this case it supersedes my rational self.

            I agree with the premise of your second point, but I’m not sure the two sides are so inseparable in this particular instance. I for one never get caught up in personal scandals or outside-the-field-of-play drama (as indicated in previous columns such as “Unfair Demands of a Glaring Spotlight”, “Morality, Legality, and the NFL”, and “The Patriot Way”), but an accusation that casts doubt on the legitimacy of what I DO root for, the on field execution, inevitably affects my feelings about the franchise. I agree that there are 2 distinct aspects to fandom and I agree with the way you prioritize each, but this particular case strikes me as a unique one that bleeds over.

          • corky p. ’09

            i want 2 cultivate & grow in ur butt

          • TheOnlyThinkingFanInAmerica

            Well, the plot is getting thicker. As you are no doubt aware, Robert Kraft has essentially decided he’s finished with playing defense, he’s playing offense, saying that he expects an apology from the league if no smoking gun is found. Curiously, he held his press conference shortly after it appeared that a smoking gun may have indeed been found, in the form of a locker room attendant who was videotaped taking the game-approved balls into a locked bathroom for about 90 seconds.

            Kraft is a very smart man but he’s left himself no wriggle room. Either he’s going to be completely vindicated or he’s going come out looking terrible, not merely having prematurely defended his organization but sounding defensive and whiny in doing so. We’ll see how it plays out, as good a drama as what will unfold on the field.