Ballghazi – What Footballs Can Tell Us About the Media

Tom Brady. (c) Keith Allison

Tom Brady. (c) Keith Allison

Lying or not, the Patriots are still being railroaded. Here’s why it matters.

For a bit over a week, yours truly has been – despite his better judgement – gripped by the controversy surrounding the New England Patriots. (For those who have escaped the media frenzy, the Patriots have been accused of purposefully under-inflating their footballs during last week’s defeat of the Indianapolis Colts.)

Why has this so rapidly ascended the charts of today’s most pressing concerns? Is it because the author is a rabid fan of Boston sports? Is it because the Patriots are on the verge of bringing the region their ninth major sports championship in the last fifteen years? Is it because I believe that it is only proper and patriotic to root for a team that names itself after the men and women who put their lives on the line to found this great country – a team that celebrates touchdowns with Minutemen re-enactors?

Yes, absolutely. Because, if we’re otherwise being honest with ourselves, this is a story of the utmost irrelevance to anything that matters. But a side effect of my unmerited rapt attention has been that over the last week and a half I’ve been gnawed at by the most unsettling feeling of deja vu.

Sam Adams believed in self-government. That was before cable news, though.

Original New England Patriot

As I’ve watched Tom Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback, and Bill Belichick, who is one win away from becoming the most successful postseason coach in football history, ascend the podium time and time again to answer the same four or five questions rephrased in a thousand ways, I couldn’t help but feel that I’ve seen all of this before.

The media’s formula around “Deflategate” hasn’t been hard to figure out, beginning with the tired trope of appending ‘-gate’ in order provide the public with the readymade appearance of scandal. Innuendo and unsourced allegations? Check. One Sports Illustrated ‘reporter’ sourced his accusations to “well-founded whispers”. This has been supplemented with a steady diet of “sources” who share the double-liability of having both (a) an axe to grind and (b) a financial incentive to feed the fire.

For example, ESPN ran a story that centered on the former General Manager of the Carolina Panthers, Marty Hurney, accusing the Patriots of foul play in their 2003 Superbowl match. That’s how ESPN identified Hurney in their headline: as a “former-GM”. It would  also have been accurate to identify him as the host of an ESPN-owned sports radio talk show or as a paid ESPN NFL Insider.

But given that Hurney makes a living filling airspace and admits that he “can’t prove anything” and doesn’t allege that the Patriots did anything more specific than “something”, you might wonder what was the probative value of running the story.

Well-founded whispers? It would appear so.

But oftentimes that’s enough – and that’s where this story dovetails nicely with things that matter in a less existential but more substantive way. Watching the sports media cover Deflategate is like watching a junior varsity team try to execute a professional game plan: all the players are in the right place and set up the right blocks, but there isn’t any magic to it.

But, where did they get that professional game plan in the first place? From the part of the media that covers, not sports, but politics. Quasi-sports.

Political talking heads learned long ago that innuendo and unsourced accusation can accumulate a patina of credibility simply through the power of repetition. Ask a dumb question enough times and people will start wondering whether or not it might be, after all, a question worth asking. The art comes in being able to do it with a straight face and a handful of misdirection.

During Tom Brady’s press conference last week, one reporter asked: “When did you deflate the footballs?” That’s about as subtle as asking, “When did you stop beating your wife?” Truly, that’s junior-varsity level performance.

Professionals are more nuanced. They might ask you to respond to an absurd premise by introducing it this way: “Some people say that you beat your wife, would you like to respond?”

And science, it would seem, is not on the side of the angels. Whether you’re an aspiring Presidential candidate or a professional football coach, the moment you have to refute an accusation of impropriety, founded or unfounded as it may be, you’ve already lost. Research indicates that when people hear a claim refuted, they’re more likely, not less likely, to believe the underlying claim.

Why would that be? One guess is that when you deny a claim, you signal pretty clearly to your audience that it’s a claim worth thinking about – otherwise, why would someone bother to deny it? At the same time, the person refuting a claim pretty clearly signals that they’re trying to influence your thinking, and that sets off all sort of alarm bells that maybe they’re not a reliable source.

The most memorable recent example of this phenomenon in politics was when Christine O’Donnell ran an ad during her Senatorial campaign calmly intoning “I’m not a witch”. A lot of people who saw that ad probably thought to themselves, “Oh no, Christine O’Donnell might be a witch!”

That’s probably also the toughest hurdle that perpetual presidential candidate Mitt Romney keeps running into. Fairly or unfairly, Mr. Romney has garnered a reputation as a man who is willing to say anything to be elected. That’s a tough charge to refute because the more sincere you try to sound in your refutation, the more people wonder about your sincerity.

Similarly, when people accuse you of cheating, it probably doesn’t help sway them when you claim, like Bill Belichick did last week, that you’re confident that your team followed every rule to the letter. When your integrity is being questioned, the facts are your only defense.

On Deflategate, the Patriots will have to hope that the NFL investigation is conclusive and exonerating. It’s unlikely to be both, and even then people will whisper.

Of course, Tom Brady, Bill Belichick, and the Patriots do enjoy one immense advantage over beleaguered politicians. Politicians need to be liked in order to win contests; football teams don’t. Believe them or not, the Patriots will take the field for Superbowl XLIX. They’ll have a professional game plan, a hungry roster, and the most talented and successful quarterback-head coach combination that the sport has ever seen.

They’ll come ready to play – believe that.

Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.

Want to help The Fog of Policy grow? Then take a minute and share this piece! Or let me know what you think in the comments section.

Have a question or suggestion for a new piece? Submit it through the Feedback form – and don’t forget to subscribe on the homepage to get posts and features automatically sent to your inbox.

Leave a Reply