Robert Sullivan, Managing Editor of LIFE Books, has written for Sports Illustrated, TIME and LIFE, beginning in 1980. He’s just finished a football-centric novel for middle-schoolers entitled Mercy Rules.
I will not use the word puleeze in a column—well, I guess I will; I guess I just have—but as I assert that I will not use it, I do so since I’m older, and the formulation, which belongs to the younger era, has its own point, and so is merely appropriated. Puleeze is, I would argue, a coin of my younger brethren in the sporting press to mean something bought out of next to nothing.
Which is what this whole Deflategate business is about. Nothing.
Back in the Babe Ruth day, as we all know, the stars were cossetted by their pals on press row, who were often staked to ale. And I was a kid reporter at an ancient Super Bowl in New Orleans—the Plunkett win for Oakland—when Steve Wulf, Mike Lupica and I were corralled by a red-eyed Tooz at about 3 a.m. at the Old Absinthe House who insisted “I wasn’t here, right!?” We agreed he was as correct as correct could possibly be—as truthful as the dawn following the dark night—and he played well in the big game. Un-reported-upon. Mea culpa, if you think that’s needed.
But times have changed, stories have changed—and faults have changed.
Did the Patriots cheat? Surely not.
Of course, I argue as a partisan, a witness for the defense.
Did they inflate the ball at the margin, did they know the handsome man liked balls inflated at the margin? Of course they did. Did they expect the pigskins to deflate in the nasty Massachusetts storm? Of course they did, and so did the NFL. Just by the way, the Pats scored hardly as many points with the softer balls than with the firmer second-half ones. I hear you screaming: “That’s not the point!” You’re right. It isn’t.
The point is the Cubs or the Rays or the Browns or the Rams or the Nets or the 76ers or the hockey teams in country-music country might have tried or thought to get an edge now and again, but who cares? We care about catching the Pats and Cowboys and Yanks and the old Bulls. We care about catching Barack Obama and George Bush and Sarah Palin and Bill Clinton. Of course we do. We are human beings.
When I figured out what Bill Belichick was doing with the line-man-eligible in the Ravens game, I thought, “bravo!” Change the rule if you want to, come winter meetings. But even then: Why would you do so? Because Belichick’s smarter than the Harbaughs? Of course, we must protect the Harbaughs—even if (or perhaps even because) the brasher of them couldn’t succeed in this company. Whether we hope Jim gets his butt kicked regularly by Urban in the years to come is not the essential question, even if it’s an entertaining one.
Soft footballs. The guess is, here, there are a lot of them. Looking at the way the Pats have long conducted business, I presume they figured a way to get softer-than-average balls into Tom’s talented hands many times through the many years. Eligible at game time, less so at half time. Who in the world cared?
A scandal? Nonsense. That’s only because it’s the Pats.
Thirty-five years ago we arrived at the Super Bowl site wondering what “the story” might be. We had two weeks to find out, and two weeks to kill. Such as Tooz delivered himself into our hands, and today—surely—his bleary-eyed presence would be on Deadspin (and maybe such coverage would have saved his life, I’m sad to admit). But this is a different time, and these are different stories, and sometimes silly, less consequential issues.
As with so many words above and so much else spinning in my head, this might seem confused. Of one thing I am convinced: This soft-football thing is much ado about nothing, a devouring of cyberspace. Today, even more than yesterday, we don’t seem to know what “nothing” is anymore, if it seems to constitute the story.
Watch what happens in the next several hours. If Roger Goodell slams the Pats, it’s all about himself . . . and Ray Rice. Of one thing, and one thing alone, I am sure.