There's been a joke going around social media in the days ahead of Super Bowl LII, about how the start of the new year has dragged and dragged (and dragged): January 2018 was one long, stressful year. By that token, "Deflategate," the NFL controversy that captivated sports media and pop culture this time three years ago, seems like it happened in another lifetime. But if you weren't paying attention at the time, you might still be wondering: What was Deflategate in the first place?
Deflategate is the term loosely used to describe the NFL's investigation of the New England Patriots — and, in particular, star quarterback Tom Brady — and all the drama surrounding the investigation.
The investigation began in January 2015 and was not resolved until July 2016, after numerous court rulings, press conferences, and twists and turns in the narrative. The investigation had received even more publicity because the controversy broke days before the Patriots were scheduled to play in yet another Super Bowl, Brady and head coach Bill Belichick's sixth together as a player-coach duo.
The charge at the center of the investigation? That the Patriots had allegedly under-inflated the footballs their team used during its previous contest, the 2014-15 AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Why Is Deflating Footballs Such A Big Deal?
Each game ball used in the NFL is supposed to be inflated to a size within a standard range, between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch (PSI). According to NFL rules at the time, each team is responsible for handing 12 game balls to a referee for inspection. In addition, the home team is responsible for providing 12 backup balls.
According to a report from ESPN's Chris Mortensen on Jan. 20, 2015, NFL personnel had discovered via halftime inspection during the AFC Championship game that 11 of the 12 game balls the Patriots had been using were "significantly" under-inflated by two PSI each. This report would later be refuted.
Three days later, the NFL announced that it had opened an investigation into whether the Patriots had deliberately tampered with the game balls in between the time that referees inspected the balls and the time at which the 2014-15 AFC Championship game began.
The league's decision to open an investigation meant that the national conversation in the days leading up to the Super Bowl was dominated by one question: whether the most successful team in the NFL cheated.
In theory, deflating a football below the league standard PSI range could give a team an advantage.
"Deflating the ball does give a team an advantage," scientist Ainissa Ramirez, the author of Newton's Football, told NPR. "Particularly during that game which was very rainy, it's hard to hold the ball, it's hard to catch the ball. So by making it a little softer, it's easier to catch the ball."
Why Deflategate Was A Nationwide Controversy
Deflategate had all the elements for a polarizing, national sports controversy. First, the team under scrutiny had a history of being investigated by the league. In 2007, the Patriots had been punished by the NFL for videotaping opposing coaches. That particular controversy was known as "spygate," and head coach Belichick would eventually apologize.
"I misinterpreted the rule ... I take responsibility for it," Belichick said in February 2008. "Even though I felt there was a gray area in the rule and I misinterpreted the rule, that was my mistake and we've been penalized for it."
There was already a public belief that the Patriots were, frankly, cheaters.
On the other hand, the Patriots are the most successful team this side of the 21st century, and have perhaps the most popular athlete in America. That the Patriots eventually won Super Bowl XLIX, days after the Deflategate controversy began only made the team more decorated at a time when their accolades were being questioned.
Then there was the conversation and reporting surrounding the story. ESPN's report about there being 11 out of 12 balls that were significantly under-inflated turned out to be inaccurate. When the NFL released the findings of its investigation in May 2015, only one ball was found to have been two PSI under the standard range.
Take all of these factors in, and you have a recipe for a back-and-forth debate among sports fans in which one side argues that the Patriots are cheaters, while the other argues that the Patriots are the victims of a witch hunt.
Ultimately, by May 2015, the league's investigation had found that it was "more probable than not" that Patriots equipment managers had deliberately tampered with the game balls for the 2014-15 AFC Championship game, and decided to suspend Brady for four games. The Patriots were also hit with a $1 million fine and lost their first- and fourth-round draft picks.
Team owner Robert Kraft accepted the fine, but did so while making it clear he didn't agree with the punishment. "I'm going to accept, reluctantly, what he has given to us and not continue this dialogue and rhetoric," Kraft told reporters at the 2015 NFL owners meeting. "We won't appeal."
Tom Brady, however, did appeal, and received a short-term victory September 2015. That's when a U.S. District Judge nullified the NFL's suspension of Brady, which allowed the quarterback to play the whole of the 2015-16 regular season.
The NFL would it turn appeal the nullification, which resulted in judges on the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals agreeing by a 2-1 vote to uphold the suspension.
In order to have the suspension over turned again, Brady and the NFL players union would have had to take their case to the Supreme Court. On July 15, 2016, he announced he would not be doing so.
"It has been a challenging 18 months and I have made the difficult decision to no longer proceed with the legal process," Brady wrote on his Facebook page. "I'm going to work hard to be the best player I can be for the New England Patriots and I look forward to having the opportunity to return to the field this fall."
Brady would sit out the first four games of the 2016-17 regular season. At the end of the season, he and the Patriots won another Super bowl.