Even if you are currently under a rock, by now you’re aware of the controversy surrounding the New England Patriots’ alleged deflating of footballs to gain an edge in the AFC Championship Game. The coverage of “Deflate-gate” has been ubiquitous and hysterical.
A Google News search for “NFL Deflate gate” turns up 73 pages of results, with headlines of varying degrees of silliness:
This list is nowhere close to exhaustive. Deflate-gate may have broken a record for the most ridiculous hot takes associated with any sports controversy in history. Some PR pundits have attempted to analyze how the Patriots could have “better managed” the crisis. I think the media dynamics at play suggest that better crisis management would have done very little to calm the volume or tone of the Deflate-gate media coverage.
First, the Patriots have a few structural PR vulnerabilities that were working against them before news of the deflated footballs even broke. To start, they aren’t well liked by the media. Patriot coach Bill Belichick has always had a frosty relationship with the media. He has declined interviews, treated reporters rudely, and he is consistently boring and guarded in postgame press conferences. This has nothing specifically to do with Deflate-gate, other than motivate the press and pundit class to cover the scandal aggressively.
The Pats also have a history of alleged malfeasance. The “Spygate” scandal in 2007 brought massive fines and extensive negative coverage to the team for videotaping an opposing team’s coaches during a game. One of the maxims of sports journalism states that previous wrongdoing must be attached to current allegations in order to create a Narrative. The Deflate-gate narrative is that the Patriots are cheaters because of Spygate and now any allegation – including something as innocuous as deflating footballs – is fair game. It doesn’t matter if these allegations are remotely true, it is the Narrative.
After the Narrative took hold, everyone with Internet access or a producer contact at a cable television channel rushed to offer their “take” on the scandal. The conversation then devolved into farce. Saturday Night Live spoofed it in their cold open last weekend. Former players who haven’t been relevant for over a decade began weighing in. Scientists and ball boys lent their expertise to the matter. Former NFL quarterback Mark Brunell wept.
Once a scandal devolves into farce, crisis PR tactics are rendered useless. The Patriots gain nothing by talking publicly about Deflate-gate; in fact, it only fans the flames of controversy.
The good news for New England is that there is a serious disconnect between casual football fans and the bored pundits who have seized on this scandal to have something to talk about in the two weeks between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. My prediction: Everybody watches the Super Bowl anyway, because Tom Brady vs. Richard Sherman, and Bill Belichick vs. Pete Carroll, is way more compelling than 11.5 PSI vs. 12.5 PSI.