University teaches law class on "Deflategate"
Law professor says case lacks evidence
"Underlying science" of ball deflation analyzed
Most sports fans breathed a sigh of relief when the NFL saga known as “Deflategate” was finally put to rest two months ago.
But for one law professor, the NFL’s assertion that Tom Brady intentionally deflated balls during a January 2015 playoff game – along with 18 months of legal wrangling which reached the US Court of Appeals – supplied a treasure trove of course material.
For the second year in a row, the University of New Hampshire is offering “Deflategate: The Intersection of Sports, Law and Journalism,” a course taught by the director of its Sports and Entertainment Law Institute, Professor Michael McCann.
“Deflategate has been an incredible controversy from which I’ve taught about the law, particularly labor law and the relationship between unions and management,” McCann told CNN.
McCann grew up in New England, but says he is more “a fan of interesting legal controversies in sports” rather than any one team. He has changed the material around this semester to reflect the shifting dynamics of the case.
Prior to the 2015 season, the NFL suspended Brady for four games and fined the Patriots $1 million, while also docking the team two draft picks. But Brady appealed successfully and played throughout 2015.
“Last fall Brady won at the district court level, so students were pretty enthused,” McCann said. “Obviously, there are quite a few Patriots fans in New Hampshire.”
This semester Brady is serving the ban, after the US Court of Appeals reinstated his suspension in April and denied the four-time Super Bowl champion’s petition in July. He’s eligible to return against the Cleveland Browns on October 9.
McCann, however, sides with the Patriots from a legal point of view, saying that the NFL’s theory – which in part relies on a video showing a Patriots assistant entering a bathroom for approximately 90 seconds with a number of game balls – “requires a suspension of reality.”
“My attitude on this is there just isn’t evidence, and in the absence of evidence I don’t think you can find someone at fault,” McCann said. “There is no direct evidence of the ball deflation conspiracy.”
To establish this point, the course features a module on “The underlying science of why the footballs might have lost air pressure.”
Last year, MIT professor of Mechanical Engineering John Leonard guest lectured, armed with a 157-page PowerPoint presentation on the topic.
Other aspects of the case are covered in minutia, including the exhaustive media coverage, NFL procedures for measuring air pressure in game balls, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s decision not to challenge the team’s punishment.
There is, of course, also the issue of Brady’s phone – which may or may not have had incriminating evidence on it. Brady famously destroyed the cellphone after NFL investigators asked him to hand it over.
“I understand that does raise suspicion, but that’s at most circumstantial evidence,” McCann asserted, noting that the NFL successfully collected most of the text messages sent to Brady from the two ball boys allegedly involved.
“There is no legal requirement to turn over your personal phone to your employer,” he added, citing Brady’s right to privacy. “We don’t know what was on (Brady’s) phone. People have all sorts of personal things on their phone.”
The Deflategate class is taught to undergraduates from all majors as a gateway into the world of sports law, and covers many other contentious issues.
They include soccer’s ongoing FIFA scandal, the legality of college athletics, and the power of sports leagues to forcefully buy out owners – as in the case of former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling.
Staying current, the course also includes one module on “Ryan Lochte and Swimgate,” and another on “Recreational drug policies in pro sports and changing attitudes about marijuana.”
A truncated version of the class which focuses solely on Deflategate is made available online for the general public. It is, however, fully subscribed.