David R. Henderson  

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I've been reading more about the "Deflategate" case than I ever would have imagined. It's not because I'm a Patriots fan or a Patriots hater. I'm neither. It's not because I'm a football fan. I'm not really; I don't tend to watch whole football games until the playoffs and the NBA and especially the Golden State Warriors are what I'm passionate about.

But I do have a passion here: it's a passionate that animates me in all parts of my life. It's the passion for justice and fair play.

I started out sure that the Patriots "did it": that is, that they cheated by having under inflated footballs. So my passion for fair play caused me to think the Patriots should be penalized. Now, having read some of the comments on the Wells report, even comments by people with no dog in the hunt, I'm not nearly as sure. And it does look as if the Wells report is one-sided. So now my passion is for Tom Brady to win his appeal and I think it's appalling that Roger Goodell, whatever his legal rights, is setting himself up as the person to hear the appeal.

So, I've been following the discussions and I came across this informative discussion between lawyer Stephanie Stradley and blogger Zach Abramowitz. I recommend reading it, if you're interested in the issue.

What does any of this have to do with Econlog? Here's what: some markers that Ms. Stradley laid down for fruitful discussion. Here's what caught my eye after some of the commenters got into the name calling, which, besides being fruitless, is incredibly boring and also causes the name callers to lose credibility quickly:

Stephanie Stradley: Personally, I prefer when comments talk about the topic and not attack or neener neener each other. That's how I conduct things on my own blog, and it just makes for better conversation. Can I ask a favor and have everybody just talk what their viewpoint is, add links if you want, and just discuss this. I really do like to learn things, challenge my thinking with relevant blog comments.

Rich Champ: Well Steph...the thing is that it's really hard to argue against ignorance in a nice way because they don't get it then either. The other part of it is that sometimes you have to punch the bully in the nose.

Stephanie Stradley: Nah. It is easy to do that. It's preferred on emotional topics Typically, the most persuasive writing is straightforward and doesn't get overly personal. Really, please debate arguments not people.

"Nah, it's easy to do that." I love it.

By the way, her insisting on civility reminds me of this article I wrote some years ago about a discussion I had with a local politician.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jon Murphy writes:

Thanks for sharing. There's a lot of interesting stuff going on in the article and the comments

NZ writes:

Huh. Maybe it is really hard for some people to do that. Maybe most people, even. Those who have inquisitive minds, intellectual natures, and restrained, mellow dispositions often seem to overestimate the commonness of those traits.

Michael Terry writes:

You should rethink your position yet again. The evidence that Brady cheated and that the Patriots got a monumental advantage from it is extremely clear.

I don't remember if you're aware of the Sharp sports series demonstrating the Patriots elite fumble rate over the last several seasons. If not, you should catch up on it.

As a Bayesian matter, it doesn't get much more cut and dried:

1. In 2007, Brady lobbied for a rule change allowing offenses to keep control of their balls.
2. In 2007, the Patriots fumble rate improved dramatically. But only on offense, who are also the only ones who got control of their own balls. Special teams players for the Patriots fumbled at the normal rate.
3. The Patriots were caught deflating footballs, an extremely plausible explanation for why their grip on footballs suddenly improved.

Keep in mind, when the rumors of the Patriots being caught cheating came to light, Sharp Sports formed a hypothesis that it would help their fumble rate, and the data fit the hypothesis. That's compelling.

The fact that it's so easy to muddy the waters is why cheating like this is so valuable. Look how easy it is to get you on their side, a very smart guy. And you actually care about fairness! Most people don't give two figs about optimizing fairness in sports, so the Sharp Sports series is just wayyyy too nerdy for them.

Fumble rate is one of the highest correlates to winning. If you could guarantee an elite fumble rate for 7 or 8 years, you'd trade a heckuva lot more than a first round draft pick and 4 lost QB starts!

And that's exactly what happened.

When Sharp Sports data first came out, there were various attempted take-downs. However, since the smoking gun evidence came to light, the big players in NFL analytics have been backtracking and supporting--appropriately, since the take-downs were terrible logic/math in the first place. Football Outsiders, perhaps the best known, noted that, since the rule change:

"Brady basically went from ~110th in fumble rate all time to about the 6th-best ever for a QB."


Please understand that implications of that and that even if you don't find it 100% dispositive on its own, it should at the least be very suspicious, and there's no justification in worrying that Brady/Pats are being unfairly treated.

Philo writes:

Granted, "sometimes you have to punch the bully in the nose." But that's only because real bullies are themselves using physical violence. Online exchanges are purely verbal, and one can simply ignore others' aggressive *verbal* behavior. The analogy with bullying fails.

Sean writes:

re: Michael Terry's comments:

i agree that the set of items in your "as a bayesian matter" seems conclusive, but it is causing you to be too trusting of the individual items in the list.

1. the rule change was about visiting teams having control of the balls they would use on offense, rather than the home team providing all balls. to properly look at this impact one would have to look at home-road split numbers before the change. the fact that the stats you're throwing around don't even look at this suggest to me that they are reaching for arguments to defend their pre-determined theory, rather than honestly try to figure this out

2. the Sharp analysis "debunkings" may have been flawed themselves, but there were many legitimate concerns raise about both the way the analysis was done and the way the data was presented (for example, the table showing evolution of 5yr fumble rate without showing individual year numbers is just a misleading way of presenting that data [by avoiding showing data that doesn't support the story]; also insisting on plays/fumble rather than fumbles/play, which makes the comparison worse; etc.]

3. the question of whether the footballs were actually deflated at all is still highly in question. i didn't notice this the first time through the wells report, but if we trust the Ref's recollection of which gauge he used, the average measurements at halftime coincided perfectly with ideal-gas-law expectations. THIS IS A HUGE POINT.

4. THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT: the magnitudes are all off. even if we take the average gauge reading instead of the higher gauge, the amount of extra deflation is less than 1/2 of a PSI, when temperature fluctuation adds >1 PSI, and the accepted range is 1 to start with. this range is also almost exactly the same as the margin of error on the gauges in the first place. it's implausible that 1 PSI changes from weather matter so little but the extra 0.3 or 0.4 would take their fumble rate to crazy levels.

5. Belichick is known to have extreme behavior in benching anyone who fumbles. He has benched players many times for single fumbles, and is notorious about this. this is a choice that is extreme and justifies an extreme fumble rate. it comes at a cost (benched players, players potentially sub-optimally overprotecting the ball while running).

i too found the basic logic of the wells report plus the sharp analysis mutually reinforcing. except when looking further into the Wells details, some of the steps don't hold up

David R. Henderson writes:

@Michael Terry,
I don't remember if you're aware of the Sharp sports series demonstrating the Patriots elite fumble rate over the last several seasons. If not, you should catch up on it.
I do recall seeing the graphic. It was very persuasive. But that was about their deflating balls in previous games. In the case we’re discussing here, it’s about the game vs. the Colts.
Imagine that I had been on OJ’s jury in his Las Vegas case. I’m virtually positive that he murdered two people in 1994. But I think all he did in Vegas was go overboard and threaten some people so he could get his property back. There’s a reasonable chance (I would have to look at the evidence more carefully) that I would have voted “Not Guilty.”
Look how easy it is to get you on their side, a very smart guy.
I’ll take that compliment. Thanks. :-)
Online exchanges are purely verbal, and one can simply ignore others' aggressive *verbal* behavior. The analogy with bullying fails.
Exactly. Thanks.

KLO writes:

Professional sports is entertainment, and these controversies should be understood in that context. A league has an interest in maintaining the illusion that its games are fair and that players generally follow the rules. Few people would be interested in a sport that they knew to be extremely crooked (boxing, for example), but some controversy makes things interesting. Infrequent prominent punishment also reinforces the belief that cheating is rare and punished, lest cheaters prosper.

The reality is that cheating in professional sports is rampant, because the incentives to cheat are strong and the people who engage in the activity are highly risk-seeking, competitive people. A single NBA game has more chiseling than a semester's worth of an advanced sculpture class. Players: simulate or exaggerate contact; raise their hands away immediately after fouling a player in a near reflexive denial of the obvious foul; petition the referees for possession of the ball after deflecting it out of bounds; and insistently complain about calls they know they were not entitled to receive. All of this is just what is immediately visible to the naked eye. What lurks beneath the surface would make Lance Armstrong blush.

Greg G writes:

I don't know who did what in Deflategate or what the appropriate punishment is if they did. It does strike me that the discussion in the first seven comments here is exactly the kind of debate that David advocates.

David's sense of fair play is is quite obviously real but there is another reason people might choose to avoid personal attacks. They don't work. They never persuade the undecided or change the minds of the decided.

The two people who were the most influential in making the argument for smaller government were Milton Friedman and F.A. Hayek. Both consistently assumed good intentions on the part of their intellectual opponents and argued about consequences not personalities. One of the main reasons that Reagan was so popular and influential is that he never seemed mad at anybody.

Zeke writes:

@ Prof. Henderson,

The Report suggests deflation has been ongoing for a long time. The only physical evidence was from the AFC Championship game. However, the text messages suggest ball deflation was a long-running tactic. In fact, the Colts were on the look out for it because of a past situation.

So, Sharp's analysis comports with the Wells' report quite well.

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