If the flight that I am about to board happens to go down, then let the record show that I went to my final rest puzzling over the ultimate resolution of just two major international news stories. I head toward the equator and a week’s respite from another New Jersey winter. Even though it’s been a faux winter so far, you never know when a pesky “snow event” might unfold. More important perhaps, I am soaring into a Bermuda triangle of media coverage, a place where Internet signals come and go like passing freighters.
So, as I work my way toward the waiting flight and past the unrelenting airport television monitors, I see that the world is absorbed by two stories. They are, in reverse order of importance as portrayed by the news media:
The possible fall of Yemen.
The possibility that the New England Patriots deflated the game balls they used in their lopsided victory over the Indianapolis Colts.
There is some subtext about Yemen crawling across the airport television screens but the bigger story, clearly, is “deflate-gate.” I immediately think that I could add something to the story so (even though I have no idea if the controversy is still simmering as I write this) I decide to get it down in writing. May my final thoughts at least be focused on a news story of great import.
Deflate-gate. What a wonderful way of moving the NFL’s upcoming Super Bowl into the pantheon of great American scandals dating back to Nixon and all the president’s men. Contra-gate. Benghazi-gate. Deflate-gate. Putting the NFL and its indiscretions into a league with all those political controversies may seem hyperbolic, just more of the pre-Super Bowl frenzy that drives the media mad.
But this year there is some relevant context. The NFL already is under heavy scrutiny for the way it handled the Ray Rice fiancee-beating episode and other off-field problems. But the ball tampering charges raised questions that cut to the core of the league’s institutional image of being squeaky clean. Could a game be “fixed” by someone on the sidelines? And isn’t it a fact that Patriots coach Bill Belichek has previously paid a half million fine for secretly videotaping an opponent’s practice sessions in violation of league policy?
If it is proved that the Patriots deflated the balls for the NFC championship game, or just looked the other way as someone else did it for them, it will certainly not be the first time that balls have been deflated to give one team an advantage. I saw it happen first-hand in the fall of 1964 in a context far removed from the NFL. I recalled that moment immediately when I first heard the charges of “deflate-gate.” My guess is that this is the way some coaches think.
In 1964 the coach was my soccer coach at Maine-Endwell High School in upstate New York. We were a brand new high school, and a soccer team had been assembled for the first time that fall (a year or two after the football team had been organized, naturally). A few of us had played soccer together in junior high school, and we formed the nucleus of a mediocre, but not terrible, team.
Then we hosted a truly extraordinary team. Ithaca High School arrived in Endwell with a 50-plus game winning streak created by a band of highly skilled and experienced players. It’s safe to say that our team had never seen so many black people in one place at one time in our entire lives, probably not even on television. They spoke with strange accents. Hoping to put the challenge in perspective, our coach explained to us that they were mostly the sons of professors and visiting scholars at Cornell. They had grown up playing soccer their entire lives. It was their national sport. They had superior ball handling skills. But, he said, we could at least hustle on every play as much as they could hustle, and if we got into close quarters with them, we could fight for the loose ball as fiercely as they could.
And by the way, the coach continued, if we happened to notice that the ball did not seem to fly as far or respond as quickly when we kicked it or headed it, we shouldn’t be surprised. The balls were, yes, under-inflated. This game was going to move at our pace, not the mighty Ithacans’.
In my mind I can still see a banner headline in the next day’s Binghamton Press: M-E Stuns Ithaca, Ending 50-Game Winning Streak. I don’t remember the exact number of wins in the streak, and I am not sure of the exact score — 3-2 or 2-1. But I know for sure the balls were deflated.
None of us had a moment of regret afterward. We all played with the same ball, after all.
Soccer, of course, is much different. Everyone playing with the same ball is just the beginning. More dramatically the action in soccer unfolds in a continuously evolving pattern, in sharp contrast to the set plays run off in controlled succession in football.
In the few instances when soccer does permit a set play to be run (on a penalty kick, for example, or a corner kick after the ball has gone out of bounds), some of the most successful teams do not even call a set play to be run. They just continue their fluid movement toward the opponent’s goal (or away from the goal if they are trying to conserve energy). Ezra Fischer, a former U.S. 1 staffer who is now an Internet journalist based in New York, runs an informative sports blog (Dear Sports Fan) that recently addressed this very point about set plays in soccer.
There is no such choice in football. Plays are called, defenses are set, and plays are changed just prior to the snap of the ball. It’s all codified in vast databases of plays, formations, and game situations. Quarterbacks have play guides on their wrists (you might call them “cheat sheets”) and get instructions via radio headsets in their helmets. A military commander could learn something from managing a professional football game.
Not much is left to an individual quarterback’s personal discretion. One of the few things that, oddly enough, is the condition of the balls. The New York Times ran a feature story several years ago on how quarterbacks fine tune the balls they will use in a game. A quarterback will scuff the game balls just so, rub them down in another special way, and then count on those balls being used in the game when his team is on offense. The Times article apparently assumed that the inflation of the balls would remain at the NFL-prescribed level.
The idea that you can program a football team to have better results than one that goes by its instincts and guts is not universally supported. One veteran coach in Canada has just come out with a new book in which he challenges the orthodoxy. Gino Arcaro, whose book is titled “4th and Hell,” sent out a press release in response to the other game that was played on Deflate-Gate Sunday. That was the dramatic Seattle-Green Bay game in which the Packers came unraveled in the final quarter of the game and lost in overtime to the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.
To Arcaro the Green Bay loss was a case study in conventional programming gone awry. Arcaro believes that taking small chances rather than safe options is more rewarding in the long run. The Packers twice settled for field goals on fourth downs with just one yard to go for a touchdown. The Seahawks also proved his point that two-point conversions are not twice as hard to make as a point after touchdown kick. Arcaro believes that teams should go for two points far more often than they do.
And, in a pronouncement that resonates with many of us at a certain age, whether on vacation or not, Arcaro swears that “the fourth quarter is not a time to slam on the brakes. Like in real-life, the fourth quarter is a time to floor it.”
So much for football and for life. The only remaining mystery is Yemen, and whether it snowed.