Talking to 7th Graders About Deflated Balls

This past week, there were news stories in the media about the State of the Union Address, chaos in Yemen, and the death of a king in Saudi Arabia. Here in New England, all those stories played second fiddle to news of our beloved New England Patriots and the deflated football scandal. As the Patriots head to the Super Bowl to face the Seattle Seahawks, the story has shifted away from the relative strengths of the two teams to accusations that the Patriots deliberately under inflated 11 out of 12 footballs in their AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts.

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My relationship with the Patriots has been in flux for the past few years. Prior to 2007, I was an avid fan. I watched every game and listened to sports radio, trying to get all the latest news and insights about a team I loved to watch. The Patriots, led by their brilliant coach and general manager, Bill Bellichik, won 3 Super Bowls by playing tough, smart, innovative football. Their players were often cast-offs who had been released by other teams after injuries or a season or two of sub-par performance. Bellichik saw something in them and they played like they had something to prove. They won a lot of football games. Then in 2007, the Patriots were caught illegally videotaping their opponents’ sideline defensive signals. Bellichik was fined $500,000 and the Patriots lost some draft picks. They also lost my respect. When people asked me if I was still a fan, I said “Let’s put it like this…The Patriots are like an old girlfriend to me. We haven’t broken up but we’re definitely seeing other people.”

Even though the Patriots have been competitive over the last few years, this season was the first one in awhile that I got excited about. They have a really exciting team and they’re playing the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. I have an old friend who lives in Seattle and the trash talking between us started back in the regular season. We were both looking forward to ratcheting things up during the Super Bowl. So “Deflate-gate” has been a big disappointment for me.

To be fair to the Patriots, the league hasn’t issued its report yet so it’s still a little premature to start definitively placing blame. However, despite the press conference protestations to the contrary from Bill Bellichik and star quarterback Tom Brady, it’s hard for me to accept the idea that they didn’t know about it. If the league reports otherwise, I’ll change my tune but their “know-nothing” attitudes during their press conferences….well, let’s just say they didn’t blow me away with their credibility.

On Wednesday of this week, the scandal was really starting to heat up. Each Wednesday I run two groups of 7th graders here at Academy MetroWest. I was really curious to get a sense of what kids in this area were thinking about this whole deal so I brought up the topic towards the end of both groups.

The first thing I have to say about these discussions is that I need to give my guys a world of credit for getting to any substance at all. I read one article about this scandal that said that a lingering news story about deflated balls is making 5th graders out of all of us. Personally, it has definitely brought out my inner Beavis and Butthead (“Heh heh…he said deflated balls….heh heh….). Both of my groups made their share of jokes but also did a great job of grappling with the issue.

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My first group is made up by a bunch of kids who are more sports-oriented than most of my other groups. One group member missed our fall sessions because he was on his school’s football team. I started the discussion by asking a general question about what they made of the whole “Deflate-gate” thing. At first, the boys were staunchly in the Patriots’ corner. They claimed that even if the accusations were true, there’s no way that playing with under inflated footballs for one half of a football game could account for the 38 point margin of victory in the game against the Colts. While I happen to believe that’s true, I pressed them further and asked “So it’s ok to cheat as long as it’s just a little bit?” and “Would your opinion be the same if it were the Colts who cheated their way to a victory?” As the discussion progressed, I watched as even the most stalwart Patriots fans in the group started looking…well…deflated. Sometimes I joke that if I can introduce a little despair and pessimism into the life of just one child each day, I can feel fulfilled. I did my job yesterday.

My second group was even more interesting. For the most part, the boys in that group aren’t big sports fans. Some of them have jumped on the Patriots bandwagon for the playoffs but they’re a quirkier lot than my first group. Some of the comments the kids made were along the same lines as the ones I heard in my first group. But one kid had an observation that I thought was pretty astute and it stood out from the rest. He said that if it turns out that the accusations are true and Coach Bellichik ordered the balls to be deflated, the players ought to be really mad at him because as a coach, he’s showing no faith in their ability to win the game fair and square. I hadn’t thought about that and I think it’s a really great insight.

Again, the league hasn’t put out its report yet and for all I know, Bellichik is going to be exonerated. I hope so but I’m not holding my breath.

To me, the most tiresome argument I’ve heard from Patriots fans since Spygate has been that the Patriots and their cheating aren’t so bad because everyone does it. Maybe everyone does cheat but it’s the Patriots who keep getting caught. I talk to kids in my groups about cheating a lot because, as I’ve written in the past, kids with social skills delays tend to be really bad at it. I tell them that most kids, at one point or another, cheat and get away with it. I even tell them that I did it from time to time when I was a kid. While it’s not a great thing to do, it’s pretty common and if you’re smart about it, you can get away with it sometimes. But for kids (or football teams) who keep getting caught, one of two bad things is going on. They’re either cheating very poorly or they’re cheating way too often. In either case, it’s self-defeating. Authority figures are going to be extra vigilant  and you’re going to make yourself look kind of sleazy and a little dim. In the Patriots case, it just makes them look arrogant.

So, I’m anxiously awaiting the NFL’s report. If it turns out that this is just a big misunderstanding, I’ll be happy. I’ll root wholeheartedly for them in the Super Bowl. I cheer them on and yell some vile obscenities at the Seahawks like a true football fan should. On the other hand, if it turns out that the deflated balls came about from an order from on high, then I think it will be time for me to break up with the Patriots for good.

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