Not So Righteous Indignation: Why Robert Kraft Should Stand Down
We wanted to laugh. Really, we did.
As the surreal brilliance of DeflateGate has unfolded over the past week, there have been plenty who refused to clutch pearls, or react hysterically. Over at Sports On Earth, Will Leitch placed the whole affair in the proper context, ranking it amongst the other absurd sports stores we’ve seen this year. At Deadspin, Drew Magary chronicled the most over the top reactions to "PSI: New England". And it’s not just sportswriters having all the fun. Monday night, while most of New York City hunkered down to await their future in a new, arctic hellscape, Louis C.K. was on Letterman, cracking jokes about the Patriots. "It’s a stupid football game. Deflate the balls, poke a guy in the eye or whatever, it’s football." Words of wisdom that prove, as always, a comedian shall lead us.
So yes, plenty of us have been doing anything, everything we can, to avoid taking DeflateGate too seriously. And then Robert Kraft had to step off the Patriots plane, and ruin all of our fun.
A refresher, for anyone who needs one. On Monday, before Bill Belichick and Tom Brady were scheduled to address the media, the Patriots owner decided to run interference, and tell the gathered media, essentially, that this whole air pressure scandal was a big nothing-burger. But in so doing, Kraft went to a place that makes it a lot harder to laugh. Let’s take it line by line, shall we?
Well Bob, yes, the investigation into exactly what happened to those AFC Championship footballs continues on. But as for the science of how the football reacts to the environment? Well the verdict on that is in. And here’s the thing, your head coach’s explanation didn’t make a whole lot of sense. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can listen to Bill Nye, who’s been making the rounds this week explaining that changes in temperature and atmosphere can’t really change air pressure in any sort of significant way. Of course, we didn’t even need a Cornell educated engineer to tell us that when the air pressure of 11 of 12 footballs all move in the same direction, by the same amount, there’s probably nothing random or accidental about it.
Sorry Bob, but this just isn’t true. I understand that perhaps you haven’t been plugged in to the web much this week, but let me tell you, there’s been an incredible amount of data based journalism spawned by this unholy mess. When a strange story like this comes to the forefront, people start to ask questions. Namely, "I wonder how much the Patriots fumble?" Some recent analysis by Warren Sharp, which has been featured in Slate, and the Wall Street Journal, got the ball rolling. Sharp’s research indicated that, in recent seasons, the New England Patriots are fumbling the football at a rate far lower than the rest of the league. In a follow up piece, Sharp found that the Pats fumble rate dropped dramatically right around the 2007 season, which, interestingly enough, is when the league allowed every team to provide their own footballs.
In the days that have followed, Sharp’s work has come under heavy (and justifiable) criticism. Follow-up studies from Daryl Sng, as well as Gregory J. Matthews and Michael Lopez, found a number of problems in the data used by Sharp. After making adjustments, the consensus is that yes, the Patriots fumble quite infrequently, but that the difference between them and the rest of the league is not quite as dramatic as initially portrayed.
Ultimately, as pointed out by Neil Payne at FiveThirtyEight.com, no statistical oddity, large or small, should be taken as proof of foul play. Men and women succeed, and fail, in sports for a variety of reasons, and no set of statistics alone will shed light on exactly what happened in the AFC Championship Game. But for Kraft to declare that "actual data and facts" have been absent from the public discourse is simply untrue. On the contrary, it’s been refreshing to see the sports community take to the numbers to see what we can learn. When Sharp’s initial analysis overreached, there was an abundance of smart, talented researchers ready to correct and amend his work. That’s precisely how the scientific community should function, and despite Mr. Kraft’s statement, it’s playing an important role in the conversation, both asking, and then attempting to answer questions. Questions that shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But we’ll get back to that in a moment.
And so here, ultimately, is where the whole thing falls apart. Because it’s one thing to have the back of the team you own, and the coaches and players who you employ. There’s something to be said for loyalty, after all. But it’s another thing entirely when your attitude moves from support to full on indignation that anyone might deem to even question your ethics and integrity. One might think that after the team was found, less than a decade ago, to have been illegally videotaping opposing team’s coaching signals, that perhaps the owner of said franchise might understand why so many view their denials of further foul play with a healthy amount of skepticism. But not Bob Kraft. Instead, he’s decided that the investigation is the only real problem here. After all, don’t you people understand, he’s looked into the eyes of Belichick, and Brady, and he can see what they’re really made of.
You know who else has never been known to lie Bob? People who haven’t been caught yet. Pete Rose held on to his lie for a really long time, just ask Jim Grey. Rafael Palmeiro was still an upstanding, trustworthy man while he was waving his finger at the United States Congress. Believe it or not, there was a time, not that long ago, when Lance Armstrong was a beacon of sporting integrity.
It’s worth emphasizing here that no, I don’t have any more information than anybody else. I have no idea if the Patriots are guilty of any sort of wrongdoing, big, small, or in between. But can we please rid ourselves of the notion that we can’t even ask the question? That we should just take the word of the people in charge? That sort of naive, blind acquiescence to power is at the heart of, well, just about every act of malfeasance, in sports and beyond. The media’s most important job is to challenge what’s assumed to be true. We have no idea whether the Patriots are guilty of cheating. But we certainly don’t have to apologize for wanting to find out.
Let’s be brutally honest. This hasn’t been a great year for unchecked power in the NFL. The league’s tone deaf bungling of player discipline came largely as a result of a Commissioner who’d been handed unilateral authority. And gosh, who’s been responsible for guiding him through this year-long PR mess? Well, that would be Kraft, who, as noted in a recent GQ article, is "one of Goodell’s closest confidants among the NFL’s thirty-two owners, and his fiercest advocate and defender." According to Gabriel Sherman’s piece, one veteran NFL executive calls Kraft "the assistant commissioner." Perhaps then, the Patriots owner should have first-hand experience with the ill-will and mistrust that arises when a powerful institution gets defensive, rather than embracing transparency and accountability.
If Bob Kraft is so sure that his organization has done nothing wrong, he shouldn’t be condemning the league’s investigation, he should be welcoming it. A thorough, robust inquiry, from the league, and from the press, is really the only way his team will clear its name, given the, shall we say, "sullied" reputation they still carry following Spygate. So yes, Mr. Kraft, we certainly understand that the coverage of this shiny new scandal-in-the-making has been a little hysterical. We know that plenty of people are jumping to conclusions. We know that in this day and age, nobody’s going to wait for all the facts to come in before they hand down a verdict, and decide on an appropriate punishment. But the right course of action is not to puff out your chest, head to the podium, and declare defiantly that your organization can do no wrong.
Instead, Mr. Kraft, you should simply learn to laugh. It’s what plenty of us are doing, and we’re having a grand old time.