Deflategate theory: What if Pats inflated balls in warm environment? – USA TODAY
What if Deflategate is literally a bunch of hot air?
There’s at least one scientific theory to suggest the New England Patriots could have used physics to deflate footballs without violating the letter of NFL rule.
“What everyone’s looking for is somebody to have physically altered the ball by letting air out,” Dr. Allen Sanderson, a research scientist at the University of Utah, told USA TODAY Sports on Friday. “We think this is naturally occurring.”
In simple terms, the theory goes like this.
Rather than pumping up a ball in the locker room, an equipment manager could take it into a warmer environment, such as a sauna, and fill it there before the mandatory check by the referee 2 hours, 15 minutes before game time.
As temperature drops, so does the pressure of the air confined inside the ball. So, a ball pumped full of hot air could test at the minimum 12½ psi, but be far less pressurized by kickoff — experiencing a greater drop than if it were filled with air at room temperature.
“The NFL rules are very much ambiguous really because they’re not specifying a temperature,” Sanderson said. “They’re just specifying a pressure, and temperature makes all the difference in the world about how you make that measurement. Us science geeks picked up on it.”
The ball wouldn’t feel warm to the touch because the urethane bladder inside serves as insulation. And it wouldn’t continue to deflate to an unplayable degree, because it’d eventually come to equilibrium with its environment. (ESPN reported 11 of the Patriots’ 12 game balls Sunday were deflated 2 psi below the minimum when they were rechecked at halftime.)
Chang Kee Jung, a football fan and physics professor at The State University of New York at Stony Brook, chuckled when the theory was explained. But he agreed it’s possible — not only because of the temperature change, but other effects from the steam in the sauna.
“If you put it in the moisture with the hot air, then what happens is that some of the air — which is moist water — it could condense and then it could even more rapidly lose pressure,” Jung said. “They may consider it not illegal, but if they actually did it, does that really pass the moral test?”
The NFL confirmed in a statement Friday evidence shows the Patriots’ balls were underinflated in the first half of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game but were properly inflated in the second half and remained that way for the final 30 minutes, when they outscored the Indianapolis Colts 28-0 on the way to a 45-7 rout.
That’d make sense if officials pumped up the balls at room temperature during the intermission, since the drop from, say, 68 degrees Fahrenheit in their locker room to an announced game-time temperature of 51 degrees at Gillette Stadium wouldn’t be enough for a major pressure drop.
In response to a USA TODAY Sports report Thursday about the challenges that would face a team that wants to deflate footballs, primarily given the strict chain of command and time restrictions, numerous readers wrote to suggest various pressure release devices, tire bleeders and even a glove with a needle sticking out of it.
However, the question remained: How could the balls be deflated so quickly, accurately and — toughest of all — without detection in front of 68,756 fans in the stadium, dozens of TV cameras and millions watching at home?
“As a scientist, I bet I could come up with different ways of doing these things,” Jung said. “You could probably put a different gas in there. You may want to put things like helium, different gases at different expansion rates. I think about all the possibilities.”
The league is continuing to investigate with help from attorney Ted Wells and the investigatory firm Paul Weiss — but no scientists.
Sanderson is quick to note the theory isn’t all his own. He spoke with other scientists and read a WCSH Portland story that used the Ideal Gas Law to calculate the possibilities. But if the NFL called, Sanderson said, he’d be happy to help.
“If I was the NFL,” Sanderson said, “I’d be going, ‘You know, there’s really nothing here we can do about this. Our rule is ambiguous and we now need to go back and revise that rule and look at it and see how we can better define that.’ “
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USA TODAY Sports NFL reporter Tom Pelissero discusses the controversy.