Scientists Say The NFL's 'Deflate-Gate' Isn't All Hot Air

Jan 20, 2015
Originally published on January 26, 2015 2:21 pm

The New England Patriots are headed to the Super Bowl.

But there is a flat, squishy cloud over the Patriots' 45-7 victory against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday: The NFL is looking into allegations that the Patriots deflated the football to give themselves an advantage.

Two scientists say that "deflate-gate" isn't entirely hot air.

"Deflating the ball does give a team an advantage," says materials scientist Ainissa Ramirez, the author of Newton's Football, a book about the science of football. Ramirez says the slightly softer football improves the grip.

"Particularly during that game which was very rainy, it's hard to hold the ball, it's hard to catch the ball," she says. "So by making it a little softer, it's easier to catch the ball."

John Eric Goff, a physicist at Lynchburg College in Virginia and author of Gold Medal Physics, agrees. However, underinflating a ball also carries a slight disadvantage:

"If you reduce the mass of the ball, which happens if you let a little bit of air out, the ball can decelerate faster when you throw it," he says. And that means it won't go as far on each throw.

On balance, Ramirez and Goff agree, grippiness trumps the mass problem.

Still, Goff doubts the ball was deliberately deflated. For one thing, he thinks both teams would benefit. (Though the way Colts quarterback Andrew Luck played, Goff says, the overall advantage would go to New England.)

More important, the referees handle the ball every play. They'd feel if it was deflated.

"You just can't imagine a ball being underinflated for a significant portion of the game to make a difference, and not be noticed by the referee," he says.

However, Ramirez says tampering has happened before. In the 1990s, kickers in the NFL were secretly trying to soften up the ball to make it go farther. They tried all sorts of tricks: "Microwave it, hammer it, Gatorade it, steam bath it, put it in the dryer. Inflate it. Deflate it," she says.

It got so bad that the NFL now brings in special kicking balls from the factory before each game.

Ramirez says coaches and players want to win, and they'll do anything: "Any little advantage that you can get, if it's modifying the ball, or the temperature of the stadium — all these things [give you] an opportunity to score, and no one's above it," she says.

NFL Rule 2 Section 1 clearly states balls must be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. League spokesman Brian McCarthy confirmed to NPR in an email that officials are investigating the ball pressure at Sunday's game.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The New England Patriots may have been victorious this past Sunday, but there is a cloud over their trouncing of the Indianapolis Colts. The NFL is looking into allegations that the Patriots deflated the football to give themselves an advantage. While we wait for an official verdict, we asked NPR science correspondent Geoff Brumfiel to investigate.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: First I found two scientists qualified to impartially analyze deflate-gate, John Eric Goff, a physicist at Lynchburg College in Virginia studies the science of sports. More importantly...

JOHN ERIC GOFF: Not really a fan of either team.

BRUMFIEL: Ainissa Ramirez is author of "Newton's Football," about the science of football.

AINISSA RAMIREZ: I'm secretly a 49ers fan and and the people around me are Giants fans.

BRUMFIEL: So, no conflicts of interest. What do these two researchers think?

RAMIREZ: Deflating the ball does give a team an advantage. The ball is slightly squishier and 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. A flat ball means a better grip for quarterbacks and receivers. On the other hand...

GOFF: There is a slight disadvantage. If you reduce the mass of the ball, which happens if you let a little bit of air out, the ball can decelerate a little bit faster when you throw it.

BRUMFIEL: And that means it won't go as far on each throw. On balance, Ramirez and Goff agree, grippiness trumps the weight problem. Still, Goff doubts the ball was deliberately deflated. The referees handle the ball on every play. They'd feel if it was deflated.

GOFF: You just can't imagine a ball being underinflated for a significant portion of the game to make a difference and not be noticed by the referee.

BRUMFIEL: However, Ramirez says tampering has happened before. In the 1990s kickers in the NFL were secretly trying to soften up the ball to make it go further. They came up with all sorts of tricks.

RAMIREZ: Microwave it, hammer it, Gatorade it, dip it in milk, steam bath it, put in the dryer, inflate it, deflate it.

BRUMFIEL: It got so bad the NFL now brings in special kicking balls from the factory before each game. Ramirez says coaches and players want to win and they'll do anything.

RAMIREZ: Any little advantage that you can get - if it's modifying the ball or the temperature of the stadium - all these things play to giving you an opportunity to score. And no one's above it.

BRUMFIEL: NFL Rule 2 Section 1 clearly states balls must be inflated between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per square inch. The League confirmed to NPR they are investigating the ball pressure at Sunday's game. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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