It’s All a Bunch of Hot Air

It is late January 2014, and a bizarre controversy is generating a lot of interest on social media and on a wide variety of websites.  The rather intense discussion centers around the discovery of footballs with lower than normal air pressure during an important playoff game.

I am not a fan of sports in general.  I am a writer.  As a writer I see so many commentators on television, in newspapers, in magazines and on websites weighing in on the controversy and yet few seem to truly understand the issue and merely wish to either inflame the rabble or to quixotically attempt to quell the rabid rhetoric of the most vitriolic who often claim that this controversy has somehow harmed them.

It is frustrating to watch seemingly rational people abandon logic and common sense while arguing a situation that concerns a game.  I will attempt to look at the controversy objectively and explain it to those who find the wearying war of words a bewildering bramble of impenetrable prose.

If you watch much television, you are familiar with the brilliant detectives on programs such as C.S.I, or Sherlock Holmes, or for those of us long in the tooth, Columbo.  It is important to realize that these detectives are fictional, and that the wonderful insights that solved the cases were devised by writers.  Writers must not only come up with solutions that are possible, but those solutions and the methods for finding them must pass the plausibility test.  You seldom see anyone using the deus ex machina ploy to solve the crime in their novels.

Let’s look at what we know and do not know at this point in the football air-pressure controversy:

1.  We KNOW that, by rule, NFL game officials, including the referees, examined the footballs to be used in the game indoors 2.25 hours before the start of the game in question.

2.  We KNOW that the Patriots quarterback selected 24 footballs for the game and those were given to the officials to examine, according to his comments in his press conference.  It is unclear how many footballs were supplied to officials by the opposing team.

3.  We KNOW that (according to an official NFL statement)  the footballs they examined were all within specifications for ball manufacture and for air pressure as specified in the NFL rules.

4.  We KNOW from eyewitness accounts that the NFL officials kept possession of the footballs in zippered duffel bags (for each team’s game balls and for kicking balls) until approximately 30 minutes before kickoff when the officials transferred control of the bags of footballs to the ball handlers for each team.

5.  We KNOW from video that the Patriots ball handler kept the zippered bag of game balls by the replay machine on the sideline.

6.  It is reported that the footballs from both teams were re-examined by game officials at half-time.  This has not been officially confirmed by anyone.

7.  There are unofficial statements that “eleven of the twelve” Patriots game footballs had air pressure below what was measured prior to the game.  This has not been confirmed officially.  The official NFL statement says only that the investigation began on information that suggested that the Patriots had used under-inflated game balls.

8.  We do NOT KNOW much about the measurement of the footballs prior to the game.

9.  We do NOT KNOW if anyone tampered with the game footballs after the officials relinquished control 30 minutes before the game.

10.  We do NOT KNOW what forensic analysis if any was done on the footballs after the investigation began.

From a technical standpoint, the NFL rules are vague about “in-game” air pressure.  The rules very clearly specify that the footballs must be tested to conform before the game, and that the footballs must not be tampered with at any point after the officials examine the footballs.

I am not stating that the footballs WERE under-inflated during the game.  I will wait until the NFL confirms this.  If it turns out there was no under-inflation, then this was just a red-herring.

It is more interesting to me to imagine that the footballs did become under-inflated.   I can play “what if” and find several ways that all of the rules were followed by everyone and yet under-inflation might occur for only one team.  The most likely scenario would be the one everyone has argued incessantly – the effect of temperature on air pressure in footballs, and that the Patriots footballs were already near the bottom limit allowed by the NFL.

We do NOT KNOW if the air pressure was measured on any footballs after the pre-game examination (despite unsubstantiated reports of a half-time air pressure measurement and re-pressurization by officials), nor is there any official report of the results of the purported measurement (again despite often-repeated rumors of the number of footballs measured and the amount of pressure lost), so it is impossible to say if the footballs in fact had lower pressure.

As a science-educated writer, I find it impossible to believe that no one in the NFL was aware that football air pressure decreases with temperature.  Ask elementary school kids that play with inflated game balls outdoors and they will tell you that basketballs, kickballs, and footballs seem less firm in cold weather than in warm weather.  Is it asking too much for adults making rules in the NFL to also know this?

If the NFL rules makers ARE aware of the effect of temperature on air pressure inside footballs, then the wording of the rulebook requiring measurement two hours before the game indicates that the rules makers expect that the footballs will be at a different pressure when the temperature on the field differs from that indoors where the officials measure the air pressure.  If the NFL rule makers are NOT aware of this phenomenon, then science dictates the pressure limits are meaningless at any temperature significantly lower or higher than the temperature where the measurement was made.  In either case, it is a stated fact by game officials that the footballs met the requirement in the rulebook prior to the game.

It is important to realize that the important temperature is not the football leather temperature or the room temperature but the air temperature inside the football.  Most air pumps heat the air as they increase its pressure while inflating a ball or automobile tire.  This heating is unavoidable.  Therefore if game officials inflate a ball that is barely below the minimum to just above the minimum requirement, that ball will deflate slightly after the “new” warmer air mixes with the presumably room-temperature air already in the ball.

Since Rule 2 Section 2 of the NFL rulebook only defines that the footballs must meet the specifications during the pre-game inspection and that they may not be subject to tampering afterward, the balls may be considered official as long as the pass the inspection and were not tampered once approved.

Should you believe that I am looking for excuses to sweep a possibly criminal act under the rug, the scientist in me has devised multiple legitimate ways an unscrupulous person could make the footballs lose pressure during the game.  These methods would let footballs pass the pre-game measurement, yet lose pressure without any tampering after giving the ball to the officials.

First, petroleum jelly may be applied to the football air intake valve.  This application can occur hours or days beforehand. Petroleum jelly will partially dissolve the fill-valve allowing the air to leak out particularly when the football is physically abused.  Ask anyone that has mistakenly lubricated their air pump needle with a dab of this stuff if unusual leakage started later.  A particularly sinister person could encourage the officials to lubricate their official pump needle with petroleum jelly making the NFL unwitting participants in the scheme.

Nothing in the rulebook says the ball has to be filled with room air.  A team could fill the footballs with any number of gases.  Pure nitrogen will attack the valve and the urethane bladder walls much like petroleum jelly, so if someone wanted a football to deflate more quickly they would fill the balls with pure nitrogen. Note that room air is more than two-thirds nitrogen, so using pure nitrogen is not filling the ball with a “foreign” substance.

Helium atoms are much smaller than nitrogen or oxygen atoms found in room air, and are more likely to leak past the football valve.  If you put a balloon filled with room air next to similar balloon filled with helium, you will observe the helium balloon loses internal pressure and shrinks faster than the air-filled balloon.  No, the helium-filled footballs would not float in the air like miniature blimps. The weight of a football filled with helium would be almost the same as a football filled with room air.

There are numerous other ways that a football can legitimately lose pressure in a short amount of time without tampering, but I believe I have shown that if indeed footballs were at low pressure, there are numerous ways it can happen, in both innocent and sinister ways, all while following the NFL rules.

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