Why #DeflateGate matters: The NFL's deflated balls explained
What started out as just another interception in just another NFL Championship game has grown - inflated if you will - into the week's biggest sporting scandal, commanding healthy column inches and withering ridicule.
It's now a week since Indianapolis Colts linebacker D'Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass by New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and tossed the ball over to his team on the sidelines. There, it seems, the matter of the balls' pressures first came up and conversations were had.
Whether the words "deflated", "deflation", "deflating" or any other variant came up in the course of that chat is open to debate.
But what almost certainly was not said in the driving rain of Foxboro Stadium was "deflate-gate".
That would come later.
For those who missed it, let's start at the very beginning...
In a nutshell, the NFL is investigating claims the Patriots may have deflated the match balls to give themselves an advantage in Sunday's 45-7 win over Indianapolis that sent them to the Super Bowl.
According to reports, 11 of the 12 game balls they provided for the rain-affected match-up were under-inflated by about two pounds per square inch. If you deflate a ball in cold or wet conditions, it provides more grip for the quarterback, in this case Brady.
In a statement, the NFL said initial evidence thus far supports the conclusion that under-inflated footballs were used by the Patriots in the first half but were properly inflated for the second half.
However, the Patriots have denied any wrongdoing. immediately after the game, and again throughout the week.
So if the balls are deflated - did both teams gain an advantage?
Strangely, no. Both teams supply their own balls for each game so Colts quarterback Andrew Luck used his own. Twelve balls are presented to the referee by both teams two hours and 15 minutes before the game. NFL rules on the types of ball to be used are painfully specific:
"The Ball must be a "Wilson," hand selected, bearing the signature of the Commissioner of the League, Roger Goodell," the rule in question begins in a faintly ridiculous manner.
It continues: "The ball shall be made up of an inflated (12 1/2 to 13 1/2 pounds) urethane bladder enclosed in a pebble grained, leather case (natural tan color) without corrugations of any kind. It shall have the form of a prolate spheroid and the size and weight shall be: long axis, 11 to 11 1/4 inches; long circumference, 28 to 28 1/2 inches; short circumference, 21 to 21 1/4 inches; weight, 14 to 15 ounces.
"The Referee shall be the sole judge as to whether all balls offered for play comply with these specifications."
How the balls could be altered after referee checks
The final line of that particular rule states that "a pump is to be furnished by the home club, and the balls shall remain under the supervision of the referee until they are delivered to the ball attendant just prior to the start of the game."
This certainly hints at a possible window of opportunity, but the league said on Friday that it could not yet determine whether the deflations were the result of "deliberate action" and certainly no one is pointing fingers at any 'ball attendants'.
This sounds like social media gold
Of course. The hashtag #deflategate has been used almost 350,000 times in the last week and has been one of the top trends on Twitter for several days.
And if anyone likes to keep track of these things, massrelevance.com has identified the individual who sent the first #deflategate tweet as one Ryan Edwards from Aurora, Colorado.
Ball joke anyone?
Newspaper headline writers have been having fun with this over in the US, while chat show hosts such as Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel have predictably taken aim.
Michelin Tyres couldn't let a good deflation gag pass them by, and for those of you who enjoyed seeing Bango, the mascot of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, moving and shaking with Thierry Henry at the O2 in London last week, then you really don't want to miss this brilliant vine of him, er, checking his balls.
Did the deflated balls really make a difference?
It's a fair question. It's worth remembering that the Patriots scored 17 points in the first half when, according to the NFL, the balls were below their optimum pressure. Twenty-eight points were piled on by Brady and Co after interval, when the balls had been re-inflated.
And a tweet by Colts tight end Dwayne Allen is also worth considering.
"They could have played with soap for balls and beat us," he said. "Simply the better team."
What are the Patriots saying?
After denying any wrongdoing in the wake of the game a week ago, head coach Bill Belichick appeared once again on Saturday - to hold a 'science-based' press conference to further deny anything untoward.
The Guardian reports "he was 35 minutes late. He spoke at length about ball textures, equilibriums, rubbing processes and atmospheric pressures. He name-checked Mona Lisa Vito, a character from the 1992 Joe Pesci comedy My Cousin Vinny."
Belichick went on to explain how the Pats had conducted their own experiments on balls this week - detailing how they simulated the game day situation which has landed them in hot water.
But the physics teacher routine just gave Twitter more ammo, and then a Vine appeared where Bill was mercilessly ridiculed for "handling dozens of balls this week".
Just how serious could this be for the Pats?
Unfortunately the Pats have previous in this area. In 2007 they were embroiled in 'spygate', when an assistant coach videotaped New York Jets defensive signals at a game so Brady would know what they were changing the play to.
Fines totalling $750,000 and the loss of a first-round draft pick was the punishment on that occasion. The expectation is for something similar this time if found guilty, with commentators universally ruling out any prospect of the team being stripped of their Super Bowl berth.
However, as time wears on the spotlight is growing increasingly strong on Brady, whose performance in his news conference on Thursday failed to convince many observers.
An editorial on the ESPN website claimed "Tom Brady's tale doesn't hold weight", and called for him to be "benched" for the Super Bowl if found guilty.
Even actors are getting involved
Right, let's wheel out Kevin Costner at this point.
The Oscar-winning actor stumbled out of left field and straight into the 'deflate-gate' discussion on Friday when he decided to upbraid former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman for saying that it was "obvious that Tom Brady had something to do with this" in a radio interview.
"It's bold talk. I like Troy a lot and I like Tom a lot. And it's bold when you say somebody is lying," Costner told HLN TV.
It's hardly Watergate - but where does deflate-gate rank among other sporting 'gates'?
The gate suffix is an ironic nod to the major US political scandal which eventually toppled President Richard Nixon, after his administration were involved in a break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington.
This week there were two 'gates' when Twirlgate hit the news after Eugenie Bouchard defeated Kiki Bertens in the second round of this year's Australian Open. Asked during her on-court interview to "give us a twirl", Bouchard reluctantly agreed, but the request was considered sexist and attracted a wave of social media outrage.
Other sporting 'gates' include:
Pizzagate: As players and officials from both sides clashed in the tunnel at Old Trafford after Manchester United's tempestuous 2-0 victory over Arsenal on 24 October 2004, United manager Sir Alex Ferguson was struck by a slice of pizza thrown by an Arsenal player, later alleged to be Cesc Fabregas.
Bloodgate: The events surrounding a faked injury to Tom Williams of rugby union side Harlequins in a Heineken Cup quarter-final against eventual champions Leinster in April 2009. Fake blood duped the referee into allowing Quins to send on a blood replacement, at the instigation of Quins coach Dean Richards. It was later admitted that Williams' mouth had been cut open immediately after the match in an attempt to cover up the fake injury. Richards was ultimately banned from rugby for three years.
Homeworkgate In 2013 during a tour of India, the Australia cricket team's South African coach Mickey Arthur instructed his players to write a presentation on how to improve the team following defeats in the opening two Tests. Vice-captain Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and Usman Khawaja failed to do so and were all dropped for the next match. Watson left the tour, although returned later, while Arthur was sacked three months later.
Bladegate: In January 1994, top American ice skater Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted at the US National Championships in Detroit, her right knee clubbed with a metal baton after a practice session. Then it sensationally emerged the assault was a conspiracy hatched by Jeff Gillooly, the former husband of Kerrigan's ice dance rival Tonya Harding.