The Wells Report besmirched the reputation of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in its conclusion that the NFL ‘golden boy’ was likely aware that he was playing with under-inflated footballs in the 2015 AFL conference game against the Indianapolis Colts. If the report is to be believed, even Brady has stooped to less-than-savory methods to win a game of football.
There are a range of opinions about Brady’s innocence, offered by nearly every sports commentator and former football player. But more broadly, what does “Deflategate” reveal about football as a uniquely American game?
The scandal confirms just how technical a sport football is—technical not only because official rules specify exactly how much air should go into a football, but because even physicists have weighed in on how much more aerodynamic a football is when it deviates from the standard.
Other sports have adopted nit-picky guidelines too, but these rules aren’t as fussy as in football. A historical perspective of the game shows that this stringency is necessary, as players and coaches have pushed their limits to escalate physicality and create an edge. Even in the sport’s earliest days, before the twentieth century, when football was exclusively played on elite college grounds, rule-makers had to write a number of provisions, including a prohibition of metal on cleats, to create a sense of fairness and order. Whenever a rule became more stringent, football players became even “stricter constitutionalists,” contesting the boundaries of the language and essence of the rule book until even more precision had to be written into it. Fine, players agreed, no metal on cleats. Instead, they sharpened the tips of leather cleats so finely that the shoes had the effect of metal, at least until a more specific rule banned those as well. It’s no wonder that over one hundred years later, the NFL monitors the amount of air allowed in balls to the half-pound per square inch.
English bystanders of the early American game decided that this rule-stretching was tantamount to cheating, which went against the ways of true gentlemen. But Americans came to see it differently, thanks largely to a man named Walter Camp, once known throughout the country as the “Father of Football.” He was most responsible for turning English rugby into an American phenomenon, tweaking it significantly by convincing college football rule committees to create both a line of scrimmage (versus the English “scrum”) and a quarterback, and to locate legal tackles lower on the body. Envisioning a simulated experience of battle for college men, he saw his adjustments as the shots of virility rugby needed to make it optimal for American use.
Camp entered Yale University in 1876, just as classmates started to play variations of English rugby. His teammates were privileged, but also increasingly emasculated. Collectively, they had neither experienced the hardening lessons of war, nor the assurances of being successful breadwinners. Compared to their fathers, they would become more anonymous and less autonomous in a more volatile market economy—all as women and non-white, immigrant, and working-class men were making political headway in their previously undisputed dominion. Camp shaped the football gridiron to be one of the last bastions of elite college men in American life, not anticipating the extent to which non-white and working men would adopt his game and make it meaningful for themselves.
Like the NFL today, Camp’s football committees discovered that their original rules would have to be revised often—so often that Camp published refurbished rule books annually. Harvard University president Charles Eliot thought the changing rules proved that football was inherently flawed, otherwise the game would have been perfect the first time, but Camp insisted the opposite; football was necessarily malleable, he boasted, to cater to the nation’s changing cultural needs. Whereas English rugby players fell slave to undying tradition, Americans had no real sporting tradition to speak of. And thus while a leisured Englishman focused most on honor—on how he played his game—it was winning that mattered more for the American, eventually at any cost. Camp didn’t think this made American men ungentlemanly, only effective. America was a nation of winners, he exclaimed, virile ones whose destiny was to innovate in their pursuit of perfection in sports and everything else.
To Camp’s thinking, sharpening one’s cleats or deflating a ball was perfectly legitimate; until an explicit rule forbade it, all was fair in metaphorical war. When a rule was incontrovertibly broken, however, as might have been the case in Deflategate, Camp would have conceded that the offender ought to pay a price, but he also believed that pushing boundaries was a noble and natural tendency of enterprising men.
Today one could argue, as Eliot had over one hundred years ago, that the very size and convoluted nature of the NFL rule book is proof of football’s imperfection, but Camp saw this development as progress. True enough, many of the changing rules account for technological advancements—better helmets, for instance, or better training regimens that make defenders bigger and better tacklers than when Camp was alive. On the other hand, many rule changes have also been adopted to make the competition between sides more compelling. This narrative tension was Camp’s obsession. If he were alive today, he would likely see Tom Brady’s guilt as beside the point. A red-blooded American male in pursuit of perfection: this was the virility he hoped his game would cultivate better than anything else.
Image Credit: “Best Buddies Football Challenge, 5.29.15” by Charlie Baker. CC BY NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr.