Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 11, 2015
When I heard about the accusations that the footballs used by the New England Patriots were purposely underinflated in their win against the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game in January, my first thought was, “Here we go again.” Readers may recall the 2007 incident dubbed “Spygate,” in which the Patriots admitted to stealing signals in their first game that season against the New York Jets.
Last week, the long-anticipated report on “Deflategate” by independent investigator and prominent criminal attorney Ted Wells was released. After the New England Patriots beat the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC Championship game in January, the NFL launched an investigation after allegations were made that the footballs used by the Patriots were underinflated. An underinflated ball would make it easier for quarterback Tom Brady to grip the ball, giving the Patriots an advantage over the Colts.
At the conclusion of his 243-page report, Wells stated, “It is more probable than not that New England Patriots personnel participated in violations of the playing rules and were involved in a deliberate effort to circumvent the rules.” Circumstantial evidence, based on the actions and the content of text messages of equipment assistant John Jastremski and locker room attendant Jim McNally, led to Wells’ conclusions that both men were involved in underinflating the footballs. Coach Bill Belichick was found not to be involved.
The report also indicated that Super Bowl MVP quarterback and future Hall of Famer Tom Brady most likely knew that the footballs were underinflated, based on the high level of text message traffic and phone conversations, and the content of those text messages between Jastremski and Brady in the days after the scandal broke. There was no text message or phone activity between the two in the months before the Patriots vs. Colts game.
Wells’ report stated, “It is unlikely that an equipment assistant and locker room attendant would underinflate game balls without Brady’s knowledge and approval.” Brady did not cooperate with the investigation – he refused to turn over his text and phone records for examination by Wells and his investigative team, a sign that significantly raises suspicions that Brady had been involved.
In reaction to the report, Patriots owner Robert Kraft in part stated, “To say that we are disappointed in its findings, which do not include any incontrovertible or hard evidence of deliberate deflation of footballs at the AFC Championship game, would be a gross understatement.” Kraft also commented, “What is not highlighted in the text of the report is that three of the Colt’s four footballs measured by at least one official were under the required PSI level. … As far as we are aware, there is no comparable data available from any other game because in the history of the NFL, PSI levels of footballs have never been measured at halftime, in any climate.”
Kraft uses a well-known technique when the evidence cited, whether circumstantial or direct, goes against you. You deflect – you point to other “facts” that may be accurate, but Kraft did nothing to address the circumstantial evidence against Jastremski, McNally and Brady.
Even if Patriots owner Kraft felt he needed to question the conclusion of the investigative report because there was no hard evidence, he should have commented about holding everyone in his organization to high standards of ethics and integrity. His statement does nothing to reinforce these standards. His organization could take this as a signal that it is OK to break the rules as long as you don’t get caught. Effective leaders use these opportunities to reinforce their tone at the top and communicate the culture they want their organization to adopt. Kraft did neither.
Did Kraft order Brady to fully cooperate with the investigation and to turn over his text and phone records? He should have. When Brady refused to do so, that should have significantly raised suspicions that the footballs were purposely underinflated.
In sports, every time a decision is made to violate the rules, the would-be rule-violator weighs how the action contributes to the desired outcome – winning, and the monetary rewards that go with winning, versus the probability and consequence of getting caught – which may involve financial sanctions and a damaged reputation. What is not considered, however, is how rule violations adversely impact others, especially impressionable children.
Elite athletes in every sport are heroes to children. Children want to emulate them. So what lessons are we teaching our children? “Spygate,” “Deflategate,” the Lance Armstrong drug doping scandal, and the Little League scandal in February where the championship team from Chicago was found to have been seeded with players from outside the team’s assigned geographic area, are all lessons for children on what not to do. Parents teach their children to be honorable and ethical, to have integrity, to do the right thing and how to lead a good life. Sports provide teachable moments, sometimes on how not to lead your life. Let’s hope the right lessons are taught – on what and who not to emulate.
Stan Silverman is a writer, speaker and advisor on effective leadership. He is the Leadership Catalyst at Tier 1 Group, a firm of strategists and advisors for preeminent growth. Silverman is vice chairman of the board of Drexel University, a director of Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania and former president and CEO of PQ Corporation. Follow: @StanSilverman. Connect: Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com. Website: www.SilvermanLeadership.com