Physics professor Timothy Gay thinks the National Football League’s so-called “deflate-gate” flap is over-inflated.
Gay says cold weather — not cheating — is the most likely explanation for why footballs provided by the New England Patriots were mysteriously underinflated during the Patriots’ Jan. 18 defeat of the Indianapolis Colts.
Full disclosure: Gay did go to prep school at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., with Patriots coach Bill Belichick. In fact, Gay was the football team manager his senior year when Belichick — a football guru even in high school — played center. The team won the New England Prep championship that year.
Gay was a small town kid from western Ohio who enrolled at Andover in his junior year for the academic challenge. While he was busy writing a science paper for his capstone project, Belichick and teammate Ernie Adams were breaking down football plays and watching film for their project, Gay recalled. Adams now is “director of football research” for the Patriots.
For more than a week, the sports talk world has been abuzz about whether the Patriots cheated by letting air out of some footballs provided for the Jan. 18 game against Indianapolis. The Patriots defeated the Colts 45-7 to advance to the Feb. 1 Super Bowl.
Reports have varied by how much, but 11 game balls supplied by the Patriots have been said to have been inflated below the NFL’s allowable pressure range of 12.5 to 13.5 pounds per square inch (psi). The latest report said 10 of the Patriots’ footballs were one psi below the range, and 11th may have been two pounds below.
Along with conducting ground-breaking research on things like polarized electrons, cosmic rays and neutrinos, Gay maintains a website on the physics of football. He has testified before Congress, for example, on what football’s collision forces that might do to a human brain.
Since the Deflate-gate allegations emerged, 10 to 15 reporters from across the country have called to ask Gay’s opinion on football inflation. NBC News and the Los Angeles Times quoted him as well as some smaller publications on the East Coast.
Gay said he’s also been getting media queries lately about another of his high school classmates — a fellow named Jeb Bush, whose father, George H.W. Bush, spoke at their 1971 graduation. Jeb Bush, former Florida governor, is contemplating a bid for the U.S. presidency, following in the footsteps of his father and his brother, George W. Bush.
At this point, Gay says, he’s not seen any information that leads him to conclude the Patriots must have cheated by somehow letting air out of the balls after pre-game checks by NFL officials.
The loss of pressure could be explained simply by a 30-degree difference in air temperature between where the balls were pumped up – presumably indoors – and the field.
“Basic physics say it’s going to lose more than a pound (of air pressure) in a place where it’s 30 degrees colder,” Gay explained.
It’s the same physics that explains why car tires test lower on frigid days, but gain pressure after driving and gaining heat from the road.
It has been reported that Patriots quarterback Tom Brady prefers his footballs with some “scrunch” in them and directs them to be inflated to the minimum allowable level of 12.5 psi, Gay said. Taking them from a warm room to the cooler outdoors could explain the difference.
If the Colts’ footballs were inflated to the maximum of 13.5 psi, the colder air could have caused them to lose pressure but still remain within the acceptable range, Gay said.
Gay said squishier footballs might be easier to grasp by passers and receivers, but probably make little difference in throwing distance and accuracy. They do lead to more accurate kicks, but the kicks won’t go as far.
“I think these are very small effects in any case,” he said.