What does NFL's "leak-and-desist" strategy tell us?
When I wrote about DeflateGate two days ago, what bothered me the most was how no one cared about actual data. I concluded that piece by acknowledging that with fandom comes strong feelings about your team and others: If people hate the Patriots and believe that they are cheaters, well, it is what it is. However, bringing up unscientific arguments as "science" and choosing to ignore the fact that official data on the ball pressure measurements conducted during the Colts game has not been released yet was something else, and it was mainly due to irresponsible reporting by the sports media.
Well, finally someone addressed this as openly as possible. It was, in my opinion, the most important part of Robert Kraft's brief press conference yesterday. Not the demand for apology, not the "trust in Belichick and Brady", but these two sentences:
This would be in direct contrast to the public discourse, which has been driven by media leaks as opposed to actual data and facts. (...) We expect hard facts as opposed to circumstantial leaked evidence to drive the conclusion of this investigation.
Robert Kraft was rightfully angry yesterday. For the past week, I have not seen one media member ask the question "Well, how under-inflated were the balls? What did the refs' measurements show?" We have two reports, one by Chris Mortensen and one by Mike Florio that actually contradict each other and don't refer to any official reports or "hard facts." Instead of releasing those numbers that could potentially end any doubts about whether the Patriots were involved in a deflation scandal or not, what did the NFL choose to do? Leak another incomplete story through another reporter, worded in a way that puts a lot of suspicion the Patriots organization, and follow that up by a statement by investigator Mike Wells that said the following:
In the interim, it would be best if everyone involved or potentially involved in this matter avoids public comment concerning the matter until the investigation is concluded. The results will be shared publicly.
Oh, and when did all of this happen? While the Patriots were on a plane. And if you haven't heard yet, that carefully worded "another area" reported by Glazer is probably a bathroom where the ball boy spent 90 seconds: The normal amount of time it would take a man to unzip, obey nature's call, do the finishing touches, re-zip, wash hands, check his looks in the mirror and get out. Yet again, all we have in the end is unconfirmed reports by several journalists that drive us to debate an anonymous person's bathroom habits because of course we have to do it.
Since Wells also said that the investigation would last for several weeks, it is not likely that we will actually have access to the PSI measurements for a while at the very least. Without that information, it is impossible to reach any conclusions on this matter, but by the time that data surfaces -if it ever does-, people will have already reached their conclusions and forgotten about this.
Now that we probably have all the information that we will ever have, it makes sense to try to analyze what the motivation behind NFL's strategy so far was, and what the truth could be. I will list all the possibilities that I can think of, and talk about why each can be true or not. Of course there's always the possibility that the situation have changed for those involved over time and the possibilities I will list below have become intertwined, but this is the best analysis that one can do at this point in one's search for the truth.
Scenario 1a. The investigation was botched at some point, and for that reason the NFL wants to drag it out as much as possible.
The NFL knows that they will never find conclusive evidence because the investigation was not conducted properly. Here are some possibilities:
*The PSI measurements were not taken before the game.
*The Colts' balls were not measured, so there was no control group.
*The measurements were not taken in a consistent manner.
*The league knew about the issue beforehand, but they still let the game be played with deflated balls, hence hurting the "integrity" of the game anyways etc.
If any of the above is true, then the public opinion that the NFL is too incompetent to deal with stuff like this will be voiced louder. After all that happened this year, it would look really bad for Roger Goodell and the whole organization. In this case, the best play for them is to look like they are taking this issue very seriously, dedicate a lot of resources to it and make sure it lasts as long as possible to bolster that impression. If they leak circumstantial evidence that makes the Patriots look like they cheated and set that "cheater" image in stone, it will not look as bad for the NFL in the end when they cannot find anything because people will have already moved on/reached their own conclusions.
Scenario 1b. The referees are responsible for not inflating the balls, as Belichick explained in his presser on the weekend.
In this scenario, the motivation for NFL's strategy is the same as above. A tweet Toucher and Rich sent out this morning further supports this explanation:
When the footballs are delivered to the officials locker room, the officials were asked to inflate them to 12.5 PSI. What exactly they did, I don't know.
That the NFL has not said anything about the referees or any other officials' role in this ball inflation issue also is noteworthy. I personally think this is the most plausible explanation.
Scenario 2. NFL has conclusive evidence that the Patriots cheated.
If this is the case, there are two explanations for the NFL's "leak-and-desist" strategy. They are really fed up with the Patriots and the way they bend the rules, and they want to put them in such a tight corner that after all this is done, there will be no turning back for Robert Kraft or Bill Belichick. Well, if this is the case, the NFL has done a great job, I should say.
The other explanation would be that the NFL wants to delay this matter until after the Super Bowl in order not to negatively affect the public interest in the biggest game of the year, but they also want the Patriots to suffer meanwhile. Hence they leak circumstantial evidence, or incomplete stories that leave that impression.
However, this scenario implies that either the Patriots are completely confident in NFL's inability to find any evidence/prove the balls were abnormally deflated, or that they are going all in no matter what. The Patriots' confidence in this case contradictorily implies their innocence too.
Scenario 3. This is exactly what the NFL wanted before the season ended.
In this scenario, the NFL could not care less about the truth. DeflateGate is just a prop for the NFL, it is something that people will keep talking about after the season ends. Someone complained about the balls that the Patriots used, and the NFL seized the opportunity. If this investigation lasts for months, with enough stories leaked once in a while, what people will remember about this season is not the Ray Rice incident, it is not Goodell's incompetence, it is not all the health issues athletes go through but the "DeflateGate." This was a golden opportunity, one that could not miss, and they are playing it by ear. The only goal is to turn it into the highlight of the season.
According to this scenario, the NFL has an ability to plan such delicate PR schemes or are really desperate to correct their public image, yet the recent history of the organization does not support either.
Scenario 4. Initial leaks about the story were premature, but the NFL had to own it in order not to look incompetent.
The NFL had no motivation whatsoever to turn this into the story it has become. They would investigate the matter quietly, fine the Patriots for some procedural failure in a statement so crowded with words that the context of cheating would not pop out to anyone and settle the matter. However, when Bob Kravitz reported on it and the way social media and sports media grabbed it made it impossible for the NFL to follow that route. They had to own the story and show that they were being serious about it. Yet due to their inherent incompetence it span out of control; and this "leak-and-desist" stuff is just their effort to stay out of it. They don't have anything against the Patriots organization, but the path the media created for the NFL has pushed them towards that strategy. They want the Patriots to just leave the issue alone and say the last word, and the Patriots' resistance makes it tough for the NFL.
On the other hand, it is hard to believe that an organization that has successfully avoided the most important questions about the scandal so far could be pushed towards a certain path unwillingly by that same media.
Scenario 5. NFL is not monolithic: Someone or some people are seeking vengeance against the Patriots, or the DeflateGate is a prop for a deeper power struggle.
The jumping-off point for this scenario is the rumor that Mike Kensil, an ex-Jets employee, is pursuing this matter in order to hurt the Patriots. That by itself does not say a lot, because it is reasonable to assume that most investigations start because people don't like each other. On the other hand, this scenario explains why the leaked stories happen despite the NFL's efforts to keep this quiet. According to this explanation Mike Weiss's aforementioned statement was not against the Patriots, but was addressed to the leaker: "Hey, the harm is done, stop now." I think this is the most bizarre explanation for what's going on, but then again this whole thing was so bizarre, you have to take this into account too.
This is the end of my thought exercise. Any reader out there can add their scenario to this list, and if they have enough stories to support their explanation, it works. Why? Because we don't have any data. We still don't know what happened, and what lies in the core of this "scandal." That's why no matter what we find out in the end, the NFL should be held accountable for the manner in which they have conducted this investigation. Second in line? The sports media, who inexplicably could not demand answers to the simplest yet most important questions for more than a week now: How did this investigation start? When did it start? How deflated were the balls? When and where did the officials measure the balls? Any of those questions would have given us some answers. Instead, we have a scoop-a-thon for stories that end up contradicting/undermining each other.
If the investigation shows that the Patriots cheated, they should be held accountable. No question about it. Yet at this point I see Robert Kraft and I raise him: No matter what the investigation shows, the NFL should apologize. Not only to the Patriots, but to every single sports fan out there because of the failure they are as an organization.
--------------------- You can follow the author on Twitter: @semioticusCL