By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — There’s been no shortage of opinions levied throughout the ordeal known as “DeflateGate,” and the latest bit of commentary comes from a group of physics and engineering professors in an amicus curiae brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
As we all know from Robert Blecker’s much-ballyhooed brief earlier this year, an amicus curiae filing translates to “friend of the court,” in which a person or people can submit a document to the court. It’s up to the judges whether or not they want to consider the information provided.
In the case of Blecker, that amicus filing caused enough of a stir to prompt NFL attorney Paul Clement to respond to it with a harshly worded letter of his own to the court. So clearly, these filings can carry some weight.
Tuesday’s filing came from 21 professors — John J. Leonard, Arup K. Chakraborty, Christopher E. Dames, Ryan M. Eustice, Jack Feinberg, Daniel Frey, Ahmed Ghoniem, David Goldhaber-Gordon, Douglas Hart, Anette (Peko) Hosoi, Guoquan Huang, Rebecca Kramer, Vijay Kumar, John H. Lienhard, Joel Moore, Michael J. Naughton, Lian Shen, Gaurav S. Sukhatme, David Wallace, Amos Winter and Maria C. Yang — and was filed by Eric Delinsky, who is a big-time partner at Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington D.C.
The professors come from all over the country –MIT, Stanford, Penn, the University of Michigan, Boston College, Purdue University, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Delaware, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Southern California. The brief noted that the professors “have not sought or received any compensation in connection with the proposed brief” and that “they submit it out of professional conviction that scientific principles be explained and put to fair use.”
In the brief, the professors chastise the NFL’s “subjective assumptions” and the “lack of any scientific proof” of ball deflation.
“Although sensationalized in the press, it was no surprise to any scientist that the Patriots’ footballs lost pressure during the AFC Championship,” the report began. “As the league’s reports recognize, so-called ‘deflation’ happens naturally when any closed vessel, such as a football, moves from a warm environment to a cold one. This is not tampering. It is science. And it pervades the NFL. Games routinely are played with footballs that fall below the league’s minimum pressure requirement.”
The amici must have been well-prepared for Monday’s filing for rehearing by Ted Olson on behalf of Tom Brady, because their filing on Tuesday expressly requested the court to rehear the case.
“[Roger Goodell’s] ruling was not based on scientific proof, but rather on scientifically-worded surmise. Indeed there is no scientific proof of wrongdoing. As scientists, we submit that this is the context in which the Commissioner’s ruling must be reviewed,” the brief argued. “This context appears missing from the majority opinion. It strikes us as scientifically unsound to base a punitive ruling on a supposed increment of a few tenths of a psig, when assumptions are used to determine that such an increment even exists. Courts should not be powerless to consider the absence of scientific proof when a proceeding is so interlaced with laws of science. We support the petition for rehearing.”
Later, the group reiterated the request.
“As professors, we cannot fathom how it is permissible to impose punishment for the possibility of a negligible increment of pressure loss, when underinflated footballs are common to NFL games, when laws of physics cause much larger pressure drops, and when the very possibility of an additional increment of pressure loss was generated from assumptions of the league’s choosing rather than data,” the group said. “In the name of science, we support the petition for rehearing.”
The fairly simple case was broken down into three specific arguments.
1. The Ideal Gas Law Exists
This topic has been covered many times over by now, but it is the basis of the filing. Simply, when a football is filled with air while in a warm room and is then moved outside into the cold, its pressure will drop. It is the Ideal Gas Law — something the NFL did not know existed before testing footballs and ascribing guilt.
“While the league understands this now, it apparently did not know before this case that footballs lose pressure naturally,” the brief said. “It announced its investigation seemingly unaware of the Ideal Gas Law or its impact.”
2. No Scientific Proof Of Tampering
While the case has not been about football deflation in quite some time (even Jeffrey Kessler didn’t argue for Brady’s innocence last summer in Judge Richard Berman’s courtroom), the group contended that actual proof of deflation should play a central role in the legal proceedings. After all, a person would likely never stand trial for shoplifting in a 16-month legal proceeding if all of a store’s merchandise was present and accounted for.
In this section, the group noted that after learning that the pressure of footballs does drop naturally, the NFL reacted by then blaming Brady for being responsible for the additional amount of deflation which went beyond what was to be expected in nature. This amount is, at the highest, 0.14 PSI.
“To us as scientists, an increment of pressure loss as tiny as 0.14 psig is too small to constitute proof of tampering,” it said. “It is well within any reasonable margin of error, based on our assessment of the league’s measurements.”
The group also criticized the NFL’s haphazard conditions for testing and recording the “data.”
“The very existence of any increment, moreover, was divined through assumption,” the filing said. “The data necessary for any bona fide scientific analysis was never collected.”
The group noted that inexpensive gauges are imprecise, and that the NFL occasionally assumed the temperature in the locker room was 67 degrees, only to other times assume the temperature 71 degrees.
Additionally, had the NFL taken the opposite assumptions — that referee Walt Coleman used the gauge he recalled using, and that the temperature was 71 degrees — then the “additional” pressure loss beyond natural expectations would be at or close to zero.
“Had the league made these two different assumptions alone,” the group stated, “the results would have vindicated Mr. Brady.”
3. So-Called “Deflated” Footballs Are Common In NFL Games
Here, the group noted that the NFL has admitted to now understanding the Ideal Gas Law. The group then looked at the temperature for 10,000 NFL games dating back to 1960 and determined that if footballs were inflated in a 70-degree room:
–Footballs inflated to 13.0 PSI before the game would have dropped below the NFL’s allowable limit in approximately 61 percent of every NFL game since 1960.
–Footballs inflated to 12.5 PSI before the game would have dropped below the NFL’s allowable limit in approximately 82 percent of every NFL game since 1960.
–Footballs inflated to 13.5 PSI before the game would have dropped below the NFL’s allowable limit in approximately 38 percent of every NFL game since 1960.
The group even provided a visual representation of what that looks like:
Only the data points inside the shaded red area represent games that were played with footballs with air pressure between 12.5 and 13.5 PSI (assuming a pregame inflation level of 12.5 PSI).
The point here, obviously, is to show that what the NFL “found” the night of the Patriots-Colts AFC Championship Game was something it could have found in anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of games in the history of the league.
Leonard, the MIT professor and Philadelphia Eagles fan, is already known for debunking the science of “DeflateGate” in a 15-minute YouTube video. As it turns out, he was not the only scientific mind who detected enough sketchy science in the national “scandal” to speak out against the NFL’s process.
At some point, the non-scientific minds who are in control of the entire case are going to have to provide some acknowledgement to this area of the story. Without the science to support the NFL’s conclusions, the basis of the entire punishment should remain in question. How that plays in court is now up to the Second Circuit’s judges, who nevertheless will likely not be swayed by a scientific argument in what’s become a strict labor-law case.