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How to Get to the Bottom of ‘Deflategate’

4 minute read

You may have heard that the NFL has written a lousy piece of legislation. Make sure the air pressure of the football meets certain pounds per square inch (PSI) standards two hours and fifteen minutes before kickoff, then hand the ball back to the teams, who are free to pop the balloon a bit. Unless, apparently, the Indianapolis Colts complain.

That’s like a kindergarten teacher taking morning attendance, tearing through the ABCs, and then signing off before snack-time. My work here’s done kids, take care of yourselves until lunch.

Because of such silliness, here we are. Bill Belichick calls an impromptu news conference Saturday afternoon to explain that, according to New England’s internal investigation, it’s the physics, people: The climate, combined with the team’s pre-game “rubbing process,” explains how New England’s balls got deflated before halftime. Bill Nye, the science guy, debunked Belichick’s explanation.

But don’t fear, the NFL will get to the bottom of this. On Friday, the league said it has launched an investigation into the matter, and has already interviewed 40 people. Ignore the NFL’s Keystone Cop attempt to secure the Ray Rice video: This investigation, the league promises, will be different. “We have obtained and are continuing to obtain additional information, including video and other electronic information and physical evidence,” the NFL said in a statement. The rulebook’s reluctance to demand that neutral observers babysit the footballs before and during the games is going to cost the NFL, as it’s now hired outside help. The league has retained an “investigatory firm with sophisticated forensic expertise to assist in reviewing electronic and video information.”

Physical evidence, forensics: How can the CSI bunch possibly crack a case where the crime scene is a friggin’ football, and the potential murder weapon a needle? “Yeah, this is a tough case,” says Mary Ellen O’Toole, program director of George Mason University’s Department of Forensic Science and an FBI agent for 28 years. “But the high risk component in this case, combined with the analytical way they’ll go through the forensics, bring it down to the realm of, Yeah, this case could be solvable.”

How? First, look for the needle marks. “I believe a microscopic examination of the valve, as well as the bladder, might show if they used the same instrument to inflate and potentially deflate,” says Kimberly Rule, forensic science professor at George Mason. If the Patriots balls show more needle marks than the Colts balls, or different patterns suggest one needle inflated, and another deflated, human tampering could be at play.

MORE ‘Deflategate’ Is Yet Another Bogus Scandal

One problem: Such physical evidence can’t be time-stamped, making it near impossible to prove that someone tinkered with the balls after the refs inspected them two hours and fifteen minutes prior to kickoff. Another possible hiccup is the texture of the valve where the needle is placed. “You’re talking about rubber, not a harder medal, like on a gun,” says Mark Flood, coordinator the forensic science program at Fairmont State University in West Virginia. “It’s less likely to leave a clear mark.”

Fingerprint and DNA evidence could prove even more elusive. “People tend to think that we get the fingerprint, we’ll confront the person, and they’ll fold like a card table,” says O’Toole. “That’s what they see on TV, but that’s not the way it is in the real world.” Many hands had access to those footballs before they were removed by halftime—ballboys, referees, players on both teams.

One potential Hail Mary: If the forensics show that someone who wouldn’t normally have access to the balls got their hands on them, the investigators can question what they were doing. Maybe a back-office employee, or someone of that ilk—not a ballboy, or on-field personnel. Still, the science only goes so far. “A fingerprint of DNA is not going to give us intention of tampering,” says Rule.

The electronic evidence is more likely to yield a verdict. “They’ll sweep cell phones—maybe there was a damning text message,” says Paul Massey, forensic science lecturer at the University of New Haven. “They’ll look at video. If the footage doesn’t show someone actually deflating the football, the investigators could find that someone tampered with the video. Is someone hiding something?”

The Nixonian intrigue knows no end. Maybe a Deep Throat comes forward. Maybe the snoops piece together a surprise timeline. Maybe they come up empty.

Or maybe everyone settles down and just enjoys the Super Bowl. Ha. You don’t need a detective’s badge to figure out that’s not happening.

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Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com