Friday, January 23, 2015

Tom Brady, Shoeless Joe, and the Snowplow Game

You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, large and small. You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, large and small. You shall have only a full and honest weight; you shall have only a full and honest measure, so that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you. For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are abhorrent to the Lord your God.
Deuteronomy 25:13-16

Legend has it that when “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, one of the greatest baseball players of all time, left the court building after testifying to a grand jury about his part in a conspiracy to throw the 1919 World Series, a young boy reached out from the crowd and pulled on his coat sleeve. As his eyes filled with tears, the boy pleaded with his hero, “Say it ain’t so, Joe. Say it ain’t so.”Joe Jackson answered sadly, “Sorry, kid, I’m afraid it is.”

Accounts differ on the wording, and the more likely consensus of baseball historians is that the exchange never took place.

Although Jackson pleaded guilty, many have had a hard time believing that he did anything to contribute to the White Sox losing. He batted .375, played errorless ball in the outfield and even threw a runner out at the plate.

Unless you have been far off the grid for the past week, you have heard (repeatedly) about the long national nightmare known variously as “Ballghazi,” “Deflategate,” or “the latest Patriots scandal.” Even though I know that if you haven’t already heard about it that’s probably because you don’t want to hear about it, I’ll repeat just the briefest outline. The Patriots are accused of intentionally taking some of the air out of the footballs they used to defeat the Indianapolis Colts (45-7) last Sunday.

I know. When you see the score, it makes you wonder whose footballs were deflated. But it’s not about the final score. To paraphrase the passage from Deuteronomy, “You shall only have the full and honest pressure in the football.”

Yesterday morning, Patriots Coach Bill Belichick’s press conference was covered live by WGBH. That would be National Public Radio’s WGBH. At quarterback Tom Brady’s press conference yesterday afternoon he was questioned more closely than a supreme court nominee.

And Brady did what Shoeless Joe did not do; he said that it wasn’t so.

As I listened, I believed him. He was careful with his words. He was obviously nervous and upset. He was gracious. Turns out I am apparently in a very small minority on this one.

The sports commentators, including those from local media outlets, all thought he was lying. On one of the national shows, Spencer Tillman dismissed Brady’s denial with a reference to the culture of cheating in New England that goes back to the “snowplow game.”


The snowplow game has always been a personal favorite of mine. I think the Patriots were playing the Dolphins in Foxboro. It was snowing hard. The Patriots had hired a guy on work-release from Walpole State Prison (a detail that makes the story even better) to plow snow off of the line markers during time-outs. Late in the game the Patriots were getting ready for a field goal and when the snow plow guy cleared the yard markers he took a little detour to clear the spot from which John Smith would be kicking. Taking advantage of the bare ground, Smith split the uprights for a Patriots win.

Good times. Thanks for the memories, Spencer Tillman, but Tom Brady was in kindergarten when the snowplow guy cleared a spot for John Smith.

Mark Brunelle’s condemnation was less sweeping, but more direct. “I did not believe what Tom had to say” Brunelle began. “Those balls were deflated. Somebody had to do it. I don't believe there's an equipment manager in the NFL that would, on his own initiative, deflate a ball without the starting QB's approval ... That football is our livelihood. If you don't feel good about throwing that ball? Your success on the football field can suffer from that."

If you see the world as black and white, then the Patriots must have cheated. When the referees checked the balls at half-time, they were underinflated. But sports is not just black and white. There is a lot of gray. The gray area is not cheating; it is gamesmanship.

The rules on gamesmanship are a little different. Aaron Rodgers, by his own admission, prefers his footballs to be overinflated. Sometimes when the referees check before the game, they take air out to bring the inflation pressure within the rules. Sometimes, one assumes, they leave his footballs a little harder than the rules allow. No one thinks Aaron Rodgers is cheating.

So where do we draw the line?

I think that’s pretty clear. If the footballs were deflated after the referees checked them, then that is cheating. If the referees passed them and they were underinflated, then that is gamesmanship.

According to the NFL, a referee checked the Patriots’ footballs before the game and they were okay. But we don’t know what that means. Did the ref put a gauge on every football? Or did he give them a squeeze and think they were okay? That’s a big difference.

Of course, I want to believe that the ref passed on the footballs and they weren’t checked with a gauge until half-time. When I think about the alternative, I feel like that little kid questioning Shoeless Joe.

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