That a football team would stretch the rules beyond the limit to gain an advantage over its opponents is not surprising, especially since such stretching has such a long history. And the ball itself has been central to many stunts. The very first American football game (soccer actually) played between Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 was reputedly played with a crude ball more round than rugby-shaped. The two-game international series played between Harvard and McGill in 1874 featured a round ball in the first game, rugby ball in the first game played under American football rules. The next day, they played rugby with an egg-shaped ball. Harvard switched to rugby after that game. Decades later, coaches manipulated the balls to gain an advantage over their opponent. Perhaps the most famous example was when Pop Warner had leather patches shaped by footballs sewn on his Carlisle players’ jerseys to fool Harvard and Harvard’s coach retaliated by painting the footballs Crimson, the color of his team’s jerseys.
Modern day coaches are more subtle. According to news reports, the New England Patriots have been deflating their footballs, except the kicking balls, to below the NFL’s allowed pressure. Previously, the Patriot quarterback stated his preference for softer footballs. The Patriots’ coach and quarterbacks denials in press conferences raise more questions than they answer, particularly given the team’s history of cheating.
The NFL is now in the unpleasant position of having to deal with this scandal. Either they enforce their rules with harsh penalties or risk becoming a laughing stock. A detailed and specific rule exists, one assumes there is good reason for it. If they minimize the infraction of this rule, they risk making all NFL rules suspect. If this rule isn’t enforced, it must not be important. What other rules aren’t important? Why should a team obey any of them?
A thought on a punishment belatedly came to me:
For the Super Bowl, the NFL could have the Patriots deflate each of their 11 non-kicking game balls by two pounds each. Then they would replace that air with air from the kicking ball (the only one that was still in the legal range) until they could get no more air to transfer out of the kicking ball. They would play the game with these twelve balls and would be forced to use the kicking ball for kickoffs, punts, extra points, and field goals, should they choose to do any of these. Kicking off (or punting if chosen after a safety) is the only kick a team is required to make. All the others are discretionary.