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Sci-Tech

Deflategate: NFL consults with physicists

Technically Incorrect: It seems one can never know enough about how temperature affects the air pressure in a football. As part of its investigation, the NFL team reportedly is researching gas physics. Really.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


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Patriots quarterback Tom Brady denying all knowledge -- even scientific knowledge -- of deflation. ESPN/YouTube screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

Sunday's Super Bowl broadcast will be presented by Al Michaels, Cris Collinsworth and several men in white coats.

While Michaels and Collinsworth will attempt to describe the action on the field, the men in white coats will attempt to describe the ball's reaction to every squeeze, snap, pass, catch and fumble.

Why do I assume this? Because I have just been informed that the NFL, investigating the biggest scientific conundrum of our time, is turning to physicists in search of an answer.

Should you be a Cistercian monk, you might not know that there have been accusations against the New England Patriots. They are suspected of having deflated footballs to please the sensitive fingers of their quarterback, Tom Brady. The permitted air pressure is 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch. Eleven of the 12 balls the Patriots provided the Sunday before last were under the legal limit.

No one is suggesting this made the difference in the team winning the AFC championship against the Indianapolis Colts. But it's the suspicion of cheating that again hangs over a franchise known for skirting the words and intentions of the rules. (By the way, why didn't the Colts' balls deflate?)

Patriots coach Bill Belichick insisted that the team did nothing wrong. He explained the lower pressure by saying that it had been caused by the difference in temperature between the locker room and the field -- approximately 75 degrees versus 51 degrees, respectively. He even claimed to have performed experiments that proved it. Bill Nye the Science Guy declared Belichick was full of it, as did Neil DeGrasse Tyson -- albeit, he did get his physics a little messed up.

So now, the New York Times reveals that the NFL's investigative team is turning to the Columbia University Physics Department to guide it. Lorin L. Reisner, a partner in a law firm hired by the NFL to adjudicate this deeply legal matter, reportedly called Columbia on Monday and said: "Will you guys get me out of this mess? What the hell is psi? And can you rub a football and change the air pressure? Are you the guys that do physicals?"

Naturally, I have invented the dialogue. However, there have been murmurings from Columbia that the Patriots just might be guilty. The Times quotes William Zajc, a Columbia physicist, as saying of the Patriots' footballs: "I think it's more likely than not that they were manipulated."

I have contacted the NFL to confirm that it's putting its faith in rational thought, for once. I will update, should I hear. I can't help but suspect that the astounding length (if not depth) of the NFL investigation suits it rather well.

Instead of talking about the sport's effect on the health of its players, instead of talking about the behavior of many of its players toward women, we are being led into a breezy scientific wonderland, in which ball-related jokes are many, but importance is scant.

Still, will physics have the last word? Could it be that we will now have a scientist alongside every referee? I can only look forward with rapture to a missed field goal.

A man in a white coat appears on camera to say: "Well, the angle of the kicker's foot at 47 degrees, compounded with the angle of his approach at 62 degrees, coupled with the wind coming from the southwest at 27 miles per hour, the ball pressure of 12.62 psi and the fact that the kicker consumed 2.3 liters of Sam Adams last night meant that the ball described a trajectory that destined it to miss the left-hand upright by o.34 inches."