Around midnight, mere hours after Tuesday’s State of the Union address, where the most powerful person on earth put forth arguments on war, peace and the health of our economy, the number-one trending topic on Twitter was about deflated balls. Footballs, to be specific. Or most pointedly, the footballs used by the New England Patriots in their 45-7 thrashing of the Indianapolis Colts in last Sunday’s playoffs. Eleven of the twelve balls used in the game were missing some hot air, and the hot takes were flying about whether Patriots coach Bill Belichick had engaged in cheating (never!) or if New England’s victory should be seen as illegitimate.
The NFL, a league that has covered up instances of massive brain trauma; homophobic, racist bullying; and violence against women, is said according to ESPN to be “disappointed…angry…distraught.” Yes, if you really want to disturb the moral compass of the NFL leadership hierarchy, deflate their balls. Typical of this was a throwaway tweet by the ultimate NFL insider Adam Schefter, who said, “The NFL starts in controversy and ends in controversy.” I don’t think Schefter meant any harm with these words, but they speak volumes. The “controversy” that started the season of course was compelling evidence that NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was continuing an ignominious NFL tradition of covering up violence against women. Knocking out your partner, deflating some balls… it’s all just another cart on the rumbling, stumbling and often bumbling NFL gravy train. It’s Roger’s world, a world where if you can get away with it, you do it, and by all means, you never do it on videotape.
But forget for a moment the hot takes about Belichick, his legacy, and how this event could dominate the next ten days as idle reporters in Glendale, Arizona, now have something to feed the 24/7 news cycle. Forget as well that the Patriots would have beaten the Colts last Sunday if they had played with a rubber chicken wrapped in silver duct tape. At least some of the collective outrage, not to mention interest, about this speaks to our profound cynicism about formally trusted institutions of power in this country, and our continued, shockingly unshakable, relative absence of cynicism about sports. After years of hearing about doping scandals, dirty players, hypocritical commissioners and games that seem to be staged only as background to sell the “war on terror brought to you by Budweiser“, people still want to believe that the play itself, if not pure, is still an honest endeavor in between the lines.
Contrast the faith people project onto sports with the utter absence of credulity we give politics. Why were people talking more about deflated balls than President Obama’s State of the Union address? I imagine it’s because unless you are someone who sees Beltway politics as a form of entertainment, or a DC insider consuming and analyzing every last optic, you would have to be Shirley Temple to feel like anything said by the president, no matter how artfully articulated, connects with your life. We were told the economy is booming, yet household income for the middle and working classes is still far below pre-2008 crisis levels because of stagnant wages. We were told that a tax on the 1 percent and free childcare was on the agenda, yet a hostile Congress makes those promises about as realistic as hoverboards for all. We were told that the US involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan are over, yet the facts—and boots—on the ground tell a different story. We were told that it was time to come together and see both sides on questions of police violence, yet protesters were being targeted in Ferguson while the president was speaking.
Meanwhile, we saw the Patriots kick the snot out of the Colts and we saw the Seahawks have as wild a fourth-quarter comeback as I’ve ever seen to beat the Green Bay Packers. We want to believe that this—if nothing else—represents a tangible truth. Frightening as it is to consider, sports might be our last collective tether to a recognizable reality. If people feel like Bill Belichick has taken that away, it will affect his legacy and this sport, more than a thousand instances of Roger Goodell looking like he has the moral compass of a feral raccoon. It’s sad. It’s pathetic. But it’s also understandable. We can only work with the world we’re given, and it’s a place where the trust in institutions of power is more deflated that any damn balls.