Forget Deflategate, How Deep Does Charitygate Go?


Jan 30, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; NFL commissioner Roger Goodell speaks during a press conference for Super Bowl XLIX at the Phoenix Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

I’m not sure who should be more embarrassed by the latest Deflategate news: ESPN for its smear job of Patriots employee Jim McNally, which has now been disproved by one of its own reporters, or the NFL for uncovering an actual scandal with its own employees in the process of its sour-grapes-driven witch hunt against the Patriots. It’s actually not even close. ESPN will just ignore the unsubstantiated nature of its “investigative reporting”, but the NFL should be truly ashamed at what it’s learned about the actions of its own staff and has a responsibility to discover just how frequently its employees stole footballs that were intended to support charities. Forget about deflated footballs, that is just repulsive.

Let’s be perfectly honest with ourselves: this “scandal” was admittedly started by someone who has seen two championships taken from his teams by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. Ryan Grigson, who apparently alerted the NFL to a potential issue with game balls before the start of the AFC Championship Game, might be a great general manager. He might also be a genuinely good guy – I don’t know him and am not likely to ever know him – but let’s be perfectly clear here: he is as partisan as they come. He represents an NFL franchise that has been tortured by the New England Patriots since he joined it and has worked for franchises that have been on the losing end of some very big games against New England through the years. First Super Bowl XXXVI, when as a Rams scout he witnessed Belichick and Brady meticulously decode the greatest show on turf and then Super Bowl XXXIX, while with the Philadelphia Eagles he witnessed the Patriots do what his Rams couldn’t: become a dynasty. Again, Grigson may be a great GM, but no real football guy isn’t left with some serious flesh wounds from those losses. He was sick of it, sick of losing to Belichick and New England’s football dynasty and decided that if his team couldn’t win it on the field against the Patriots he was going to take his best shot off the field at the the team  that’s tortured him for the last fifteen years.

But Grigson doesn’t deserve the blame for this mess. He shouldn’t be blamed for raising an issue with the league that he thought could give his opponent a competitive advantage. You better believe that Bill Belichick and Robert Kraft would have done the same thing. The question that needs to be asked and answered, however, is what prompted Grigson to make that inquiry and was he in communication with the NFL’s Director of Football Operations, Mike Kensil, before or during the game about the issue? As CSNNE’s Tom Curran has pointed out, Kensil worked for the Jets, the Patriots’ bitter rivals, for nearly twenty years before joining the NFL’s front office, so to think he’s impartial is a stretch to say the least. The fact that Kensil was the one that apparently checked the inflation level of the balls at half time, and not a trained league official, is dubious at best.

Clearly, there are too many loose ends to this story to draw definitive conclusions at this point, but thus far every time breaking news would seem to cement the Patriots’ guilt, the “facts” have been quickly debunked. Eleven of twelve footballs were two pounds under inflated? Actually, it was just one football with the others just “a few ticks under”. A Patriots ball boy was caught taking the balls into a bathroom before the game? That tape was volunteered to the league investigators by the Patriots, he was only in the bathroom for 98 seconds, and is apparently elderly. A locker room attendant allegedly tried to plant an unauthorized ball with a referee during the game? That ball, and another, were apparently given to that attendant by two separate officials after an NFL employee stole a game ball to sell it, one that was bound for charity, nonetheless. I can’t wait for the next shoe to drop in this world-class investigation.

In addition to all of this, we’ve learned that the officials don’t even record the inflation levels when approving the game balls. They weren’t recorded before the game, apparently, weren’t recorded at half time, and weren’t recorded at the end of the game. Forget evidence as means, the NFL is incapable of proving the end! How one draws definitive conclusions with that baseline is beyond me.

It’s the NFL, not the Patriots, Colts or any other franchise, that mismanaged this from the start. First by blowing it completely out of proportion from the beginning and then by letting the investigation drag on through the Super Bowl and beyond, all while leaking information to the media in a feeble attempt to control the narrative. I’ve worked in communications. I understand what they might think they’re doing, but at the end of the day you’ll lose to the truth every time. As much as the league and many of its fans would like for the smoking gun to emerge, it’s just not there, like it or not.

After weeks of what is undoubtedly a very expensive investigation, the NFL has still found no wrongdoing by any member of the New England Patriots organization, but it has uncovered something that’s actually worth investigating: its own employees profiting from game balls that are intended for charity. There are many questions that need to be answered and the NFL should start by diverting its focus from the fake scandal to the real one. How widespread is this practice? How much have the charities lost out as a result? Were game officials involved or just league employees? Is it limited to game balls or are more game-used items being stolen by NFL staff? These are serious questions and the NFL would do well to investigate them fully. Otherwise, there’s a real risk that the only thing the NFL’s investigation will have uncovered, is the league office’s complete and utter incompetence.