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Wednesday, February 3, 2016

February 3, 2016: Football Debates: Deflategate

[For each of the last few years, I’ve used Super Bowl week to AmericanStudy some football and/or sports topics. This week, I’ll focus on five football debates I haven’t already covered in those series, leading up to a special post on a few Super Bowl L storylines!]
On how to AmericanStudy an over-covered story, and what we might talk about instead.
In late 2015, Google announced the word/phrase that each state had Googled more frequently than any other state over the course of the preceding year. For New Hampshire, the winner was “Deflategate,” and I can only hope that it was as part of such searches as “How can I ensure I will never hear about Deflategate again?” and “Why am I still hearing about Deflategate in December?!” and “ARGH, Deflategate! ARRRRRRRRRRRRRGH!” Because I believe I speak for every New Englander, and perhaps every US citizen, when I note that if we never again hear about Tom Brady’s balls, we will all be infinitely happier as a result. (Although that hyperlinked YouTube video just might make the whole Year o’ Deflategate worth it.) I’m no New England Patriots fan, so am not disgruntled about the scandal or the ensuing punishment—just sick to death of the whole affair.
So why am I writing a blog post on Deflategate, you might (very reasonably) ask? Well for one thing, it’s important to consider how we can approach and analyze a topic that feels talked and played out—as much as I try to focus in this space (and in my work more generally) on under-remembered histories and topics, there’s something to be said for the ability to engage with those that are already familiar and find ways to add to the conversations nonetheless. In this case, two of the most significant aspects of the story seem to be the interconnected issues of investigations and journalism in the digital age—as much as Deflategate originated with questions about events that took place on a football field, it quickly morphed into questions of whom Tom Brady had texted and how many times, what had happened to Brady’s cell phone, whether there was video surveillance footage of a Patriots ballboy and what had happened in the few seconds he was not covered by video cameras, and many similar digital and technological issues. There have been sports scandals since there have been sports, but Deflategate feels like one of the first truly 21st century scandals—a trend that’s only likely to be amplified in the coming years.
Digital details (from a victim’s text messages to a suspect’s home security videos and, yes, another destroyed cell phone) were just as crucial to the investigations into and reporting on another recent Patriots and NFL scandal: the Aaron Hernandez murder trial. Yet as soon as Hernandez was released by the Patriots, long before his conviction and jail sentence, the story was consistently treated as entirely separate from the team or league. I’m not suggesting that the Patriots had any specific information about Hernandez’s criminal activities, nor that they’re in any way responsible for his actions. Instead, I’m simply noting that many of the elements of the Hernandez case—a tendency toward macho aggressiveness and violence, a culture of guns, a willingness to use brutal force to exercise one’s will—seem endemic of professional football’s culture, if not indeed purposefully cultivated among its players (perhaps not the gun culture one, but the others at least). If we’re going to spend a full year obsessing about NFL scandals, I’d suggest those as particularly good topics on which to focus.
Next debate tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?


  1. Highly recommend watching "The Hunting Ground" for a behind the scences understanding of how these athletes are formed into intitled celebrities that are not held accountable to the laws of the non-athlete population.