The latest installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.
BOSTON, United States—To understand why the deflation of an oblong leather sack has consumed the attention of this large and powerful country for the past few weeks, you have to understand the central role the brutal and mystifyingly complex game of football plays in American culture, and the controversial place of a star player named Tom Brady in that game.
While best known internationally as the husband of Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen, Brady is revered and loathed in equal parts in the United States as one of the most popular and skillful players of American football, which bears no resemblance to the internationally beloved sport of the same name. With his movie-star looks and stylish apparel, Brady cuts an unusual figure in a sport whose players are more typically celebrated for embodying the traditional machismo long glorified in American culture. But his unusual image is appropriate for the captain of one of the game’s most elite and glamorous squads, the New England Patriots.
Hailing from the prosperous northeast region of the country, the Patriots’ nickname refers to the anti-colonialist guerilla fighters who waged a bloody insurgency against the occupying British army in America’s war of independence, but these Patriots are hardly scrappy rebels. Under their brilliant but eccentric coach, Bill Belichick, they have been the most successful football team of this century, as well as a dominant force in American culture.
But this elite image has been tarnished in recent days. In football, bone-shattering collisions that leave players writhing in pain on the ground and cause long-term brain damage are a matter of course, but the dimensions and firmness of the ball used in the game are sacrosanct. The nation has been riveted as one of game’s most popular players was found to be tampering with the spheroid’s structural integrity.
According to a nearly 300-page report commissioned by the sport’s governing body, the National Football League, commonly referred to as the NFL, Brady most likely had the balls he used intentionally deflated, making them easier to grip, before the penultimate match of last season against the Patriots’ longtime rivals from Indianapolis, a provincial capital in the central region. (The Patriots would go on to win the Super Bowl, the sport’s championship and an unofficial secular holiday.) The NFL’s mercurial and at times dictatorial leader, Roger Goodell, who has on several occasions in recent years been called upon to dispense justice on players when the country’s corrupt and often incompetent judiciary has failed, was harsh in this case, suspending Brady for four matches next year and fining his team $1 million.
Even at a time when the nation is at war in several countries and protesters have been clashing with police in major cities, the Brady affair has received a massive amount of attention and is being treated with utmost importance by the country’s media. One nickname for the scandal, “Deflategate,” refers to a criminal conspiracy that led to the overthrow of the American government nearly half a century ago, known as Watergate. Another, “Ballghazi,” refers to an infamous massacre of American diplomats in Benghazi, Libya. Brady has even pushed back against the notion that his actions are comparable to terrorism. (The word balls is also American slang for testicles, and the pun has provided much fodder for the country’s topical comedians.)
It remains to be seen whether the scandal will engulf America’s political leaders, particularly embattled President Barack Obama. Patriots owner Robert Kraft has ties to Obama’s ruling Democratic Party, and just days before the release of the report, the president had hosted the team, but not Brady, for a celebration at the executive mansion. A presidential spokesman has called on Brady to be mindful of his status as a role model to children, but the president himself has not yet commented on the report’s findings.
Enraged Patriots loyalists have gone as far as to engage in acts of civil disobedience to protest Brady’s suspension, descending on the NFL’s headquarters in the nation’s largest city, New York, to protest. Residents of the quaint and historical city of Boston, America’s 24th-largest by population, are known for their intense, near-tribal loyalty to their sports teams, and despite recent successes, often claim they are disrespected by fans in other cities, particularly nearby New York. The deflation scandal is likely to only feed this sense of persecution.