John Leonard is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who roots for the Philadelphia Eagles, listens to sports talk radio when he is exercising, and teaches a course called Measurement and Instrumentation. When the Deflategate story broke after last year’s A.F.C. championship game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts, he found himself fixated on it, yearning to dig into it from a scientific point of view.
On the off chance you have spent the last year on Mars, Deflategate refers to the scandal that ensued after the Colts accused the Patriots of deflating their footballs to give quarterback Tom Brady an unfair edge — an accusation that the N.F.L. and its commissioner, Roger Goodell, ultimately determined was probably true.
“Of course, I thought of the Ideal Gas Law right away,” Leonard says, “but there was no data to test it.” Although the N.F.L. had measured the pounds per square inch (p.s.i.) of the Patriots’ footballs at halftime after the Colts complained — under the rules, game balls must be inflated to pressures ranging from 12.5 to 13.5 p.s.i. — it had not released any numbers.
The Ideal Gas Law, in case you are wondering, sets out the expected behavior of gases under certain conditions, like changes in temperature or volume. For instance, gases contract when they are in cold air and expand when they are in warmer temperatures. “I’m always looking for real life examples for my students,” Leonard says. If he could get some data, Deflategate had great potential as a case study.
In May, the data arrived. The prominent lawyer Theodore V. Wells Jr., who was hired to investigate Deflategate for the league, delivered a devastating indictment of the Patriots. The Wells report concluded that “it was more probable than not” that two members of the Patriots’ locker room staff had “participated in a deliberate effort to release air from Patriots game balls,” and that “it was more probable than not” that Brady was “at least generally aware” of the impropriety.
Although the evidence was circumstantial — based on ambiguous text messages; Brady’s discarding of a cellphone; and a trip to the bathroom by one of the staff members, who took the balls in with him — it was also buttressed by a lengthy scientific report prepared by Exponent, a consulting firm with dubious bona fides, having disputed the dangers of secondhand smoke and asbestos. Exponent was a hired gun, and its conclusions backed Wells’s narrative.
Brady liked his footballs at the lowest p.s.i. in the range — 12.5. The consultants concluded that the drop in the p.s.i. of the Patriots’ footballs — the average was 11.3 p.s.i. — could not be fully explained by the Ideal Gas Law; it was too steep. But the smaller drop in the p.s.i. of the Colts’ footballs could indeed be explained by the laws of physics.
Numbers in hand, Leonard went to work. He bought the same gauges the N.F.L. used to measure p.s.i. levels. He bought N.F.L.-quality footballs. He replicated the temperatures of the locker room, and the colder field. And so on. When he was done, he concluded that Exponent had made a series of basic errors. Leonard’s work showed the exact opposite of Exponent’s conclusions: The drop in the Patriots’ footballs’ p.s.i was consistent with the Ideal Gas Law; the smaller drop in pressure in the Colts’ balls was not. (Leonard surmises that because the Colts’ balls were tested after the Patriots’ balls, they had warmed up again.)
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By early November, he had a PowerPoint presentation with more than 140 slides. By the end of the month, he had given two lectures about Deflategate, the second of which he had videotaped and posted on YouTube. A viewer who watched the lengthy lecture edited it down to a crisp 15 minutes; Leonard agreed to let him post the edited version.
The edited lecture went up on YouTube on Dec. 1 and has been viewed more than 17,000 times. It is utterly convincing. Leonard told me that if an M.I.T. undergraduate made the kinds of mistakes that Exponent made, “I would force them to repeat the experiment and correct the analysis.” Based on his study of the data, Leonard now says: “I am convinced that no deflation occurred and that the Patriots are innocent. It never happened.”
He is hardly the only scientist to take that position. As Dan Wetzel pointed out in a recent Yahoo Sports column, scientists at Carnegie Mellon, the University of Chicago, Boston College, Rockefeller University, the University of Illinois and Bowdoin College — and others — have all come to the same conclusion.
And yet, this overwhelming scientific consensus notwithstanding, here we are a year later, with Brady and his Patriots about to play yet again in an A.F.C. championship game — their 11th in the 22 years that Robert K. Kraft has owned the team — and nothing has changed. The other owners still seethe at what they perceive as cheating by the Patriots. The N.F.L., refusing to acknowledge the science, continues to pursue Brady in court, in an effort to enforce a four-game suspension that he sued to overturn. (Brady prevailed in the lower court.)
And then there’s Kraft. One of the shrewdest sports owners ever — he turned a floundering franchise into a property that Forbes values at a staggering $3.2 billion — Kraft has been publicly humiliated by his own league, forced to pay a $1 million fine and give up two draft choices. Although he no longer lashes out at the league the way he did in the early days of Deflategate — his style is to be a conciliator, not a slasher — he is said to feel betrayed. Not least by Goodell, with whom he had once been so close that people called him the “assistant commissioner,” according to ESPN the Magazine.
To put it another way, the consequences of something that scientists believe never happened have been enormous.
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