The season that began with the NFL not knowing what to do about Ray Rice will end with one Super Bowl participant being suspected, not for the first time, of cheating. Commissioner Roger Goodell likes to say his job is to Protect The Shield, meaning the longstanding NFL logo. We’re about to see if he means it.
You wouldn’t think the New England Patriots, winners of three Super Bowls this millennium, could be considered a rogue outfit, but they are. In 2007, they were found to have filmed other teams’ defensive signals in violation of the rules and their coach was fined $500,000, and it’s widely accepted in league circles that the Patriots and Bill Belichick aren’t above anything in their pursuit of victory.
Bob Kravitz of WHTR reported after Sunday’s AFC championship that the Indianapolis Colts believed the footballs had been underinflated. (The suspicion took wings after D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a pass thrown by Tom Brady, who has said he prefers underinflated footballs.) Late Tuesday, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported that the NFL has found that 11 of the 12 footballs used in open play were inflated below league specifications — this after the balls were inspected by the officiating crew barely two hours before kickoff.
Apparently someone let air out of 11 (of 12) footballs over the interceding two hours. (Cold weather can have a deflating effect, as anyone who checks tire pressure knows, but still: On 11 of 12?) Nobody believes Belichick did it himself — well, nobody seriously believes it — but there’s no way a bunch of ball boys could have taken such unilateral action. (“I’m bored, Mikey. Let’s take a little air out of 11 of the 12 footballs and see what happens. It’ll be fun!”)
In the Ray Rice case, the NFL appeared not to know what was going on, which made it seem stupid. (And no, we’re not equating domestic violence with underinflated footballs.) This is different in that it directly involves the NFL’s principal product, meaning the games themselves. Which leads us to this:
The Super Bowl will be staged Feb. 1. What’s Goodell going to do?
This is the same Belichick who was docked a half-million dollars for what’s known as Spygate, so it’s not as if he has a clean slate. He’s about to coach in our nation’s showcase sporting event, and if there’s cause to believe he knew or should have known that improper measures were being taken in the effort to help his team reach that showcase, should he be allowed on the sideline come Feb. 1?
It would be unthinkable for the NFL to suspend the NFL’s most famous coach for its most famous game. Then again, it was pretty unthinkable that Sean Payton, who’d won a Super Bowl himself, was suspended for a season for presiding over a team that had affixed bounties to opposing players.
Goodell and his league have lost a ton of credibility over the past months, but there has been no reason to believe the games themselves weren’t on the up-and-up. There’s reason to believe the AFC championship might not have been. (Yes, the Patriots won 45-7, but knowledge of an outcome cannot override an attempt, assuming there was one, to influence that outcome.) Let’s see how serious this commissioner is about protecting the shield — or if he cares more about shielding one of his golden franchises and its coach.