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Just weeks before Super Bowl, NFL investigates Patriots for underinflated footballs

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  • *Editor’s note:

    Hari Sreenivasan incorrectly reported that the coach of the New England Patriots was fined $25,000 in 2007. The correct amount is $500,000.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    The New England Patriots are on their way to their eighth Super Bowl, a trip to the big game that followed a blowout victory over the Indianapolis Colts just this weekend.

    But now the team is being accused of cheating, amid questions they violated league policy by using underinflated footballs, which can be easier to throw and catch.

    Reports out today say an NFL investigation found the balls were indeed deflated, raising questions of fairness for one of the league's most successful teams.

    Hari in our New York studio picks up the story for there.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Here's what supposed to happen. Each team provides game officials with a dozen footballs before the game that it will use during. The referees then inspect those a little more than two hours before kickoff. Footballs are supposed to be inflated to between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds per inch of pressure.

    But, on Sunday, when the Colts got their hands on a ball when they intercepted a pass from the Patriots, they grew suspicious. Officials then swapped out a ball during the third quarter. Today, ESPN and The Boston Globe reported the league's initial findings of a potential violation.

    The NFL told the NewsHour it's continuing to investigate the matter.

    Ben Volin is the national NFL reporter for The Boston Globe who is covering the story. He joins me now.

    So, what has the league found so far, Ben?

  • BEN VOLIN, The Boston Globe:

    All the league has found is that the Patriots did in fact use underinflated footballs on Sunday night against the Colts.

    The league actually sent a letter to the Patriots on Monday informing them that their initial investigation did turn up this fact, that the balls were not properly inflated. And so now you have league officials here in New England in Foxborough interviewing team personnel, also the officials from the other night, ball boys, anyone who could have been affiliated with the chain of command — chain of custody with the footballs.

    They're now trying to determine, how did these balls get underinflated? To be clear, the NFL has not accused the Patriots of anything yet. It could have been improper protocol from the officials. Perhaps the cold weather played into it. But, right now, the NFL has confirmed that the Patriots' footballs were underinflated.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. So, even a 12-year-old is asking questions, how is it that the refs didn't feel the difference? Why is it that we're waiting for an opponent's team to feel that difference? The refs touch the ball between every play.

  • BEN VOLIN:

    Yes, that's a great question.

    And I still haven't been able to wrap my head around that one. Now, I have been able to — actually, today, we have taken a few footballs and given them various pressure. Now, you can't always tell immediately if one ball is slightly less inflated than another. And in the heat of the game, there is so much going on, perhaps, you know, the ball felt right enough for the official, and they're not sitting there obviously with a pressure gauge and taking the pressure of the football all the time.

    So I'm with you. I don't quite understand how the officials weren't able to come up with this. But it's true. The Colts first — the ball boy on the sideline informed the coach, who told the general manager, who told a league official, who then relayed it to the referees on the field.

    At sidelines — I'm sorry — halftime, they checked all 12 footballs for the Patriots. They used two different gauges, so they checked each ball twice. And it came up that they were underinflated. So, not sure how the refs missed it, but they got it at halftime.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right.

    So, a couple of the reasons around the watercooler, so to speak, today that people are talking about this is, one, that the coach of the New England Patriots had been fined $25,000* in 2007 for cheating before. And, also, this was the game that got them into the Super Bowl. This isn't sort of game two, when it's maybe a minor infraction.

  • BEN VOLIN:

    Absolutely.

    The Patriots have lost the benefit of the doubt because of the Spygate scandal from 2007. And, yes, it is a bigger stage. This isn't week 11 of the regular season. There's been a lot of talk this week about Green Bay Packers' quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He likes to overinflate the footballs beyond what the NFL allows them to do.

    And people are saying, why didn't that create a big stir? Well, A, he wasn't caught doing it and, B, he certainly wasn't caught doing it in the AFC Championship Game, like the Patriots were. So, that's why it's become a big story.

    I don't think it's the worst cheating in the world. It's maybe closer to a lesser infraction, but, at the same time, they most likely were caught cheating here.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So, this makes me ask the question.

    The overinflation, underinflation, teams having their own control, this doesn't happen in basketball. There's not different sizes of baseballs. Why isn't there sort of one standard football that shows up on the field, both teams use the same thing that's already been decided on that's properly inflated? Why do we have this variation?

  • BEN VOLIN:

    Well, it's interesting that the NFL has so many rules that are specific about you cannot wear — you know, what certain color or socks you can wear and what color cleats you can wear, but there is a lot of gray area with the football.

    And they allow the teams to kind of have control of their own footballs and provide their own footballs to the game. I think the obvious solution is to have the NFL do this.

    But, at the same time, you will see pitchers kind of scuff up a baseball a little bit to their specifics, or a basketball referee, you will see him kind of press the basketball. So you're allowed to rub some dirt on the football, take the slickness away. I don't think that's wrong.

    But, certainly, when the officials check the balls two hours before game time, and if a team potentially tries to take air out of the football afterwards, that's a big no-no.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Ben Volin of The Boston Globe, thanks so much for joining us.

  • BEN VOLIN:

    Thank you.

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