Science Bowl Matchup: Bill Belichick vs Bill Nye The Science Guy
Reality is sometimes stranger than fiction. The controversy surrounding this year’s football championship game, The Super Bowl, certainly qualifies. The New England Patriots football team will be playing in The Super Bowl this coming Sunday night, and although the outcome of their win over The Indianapolis Colts a week ago Sunday was not a terribly close affair (the final score was 45-7) all that the sports world is talking about since then has to do with the air inside the football.
The footballs used during an NFL game must meet certain criteria. Among the criteria is the amount of air a ball is allowed to contain. The allowable range is 12.5 pounds per square inch of pressure (PSI) up to 13.5 PSI. Several hours before a game begins, the referee (the top official which leads a team of officials for every game) inspects and measures the footballs to make sure they are all regulation. The referee will then mark each approved ball with a seal, and the balls are ready for the game. Each team provides 12 footballs (plus another 12 as backup) to be inspected and approved.
Each team plays offense with their own footballs. So when a player from the Colts intercepted a Patriot’s pass towards the end of the first half of the game, the Patriot’s football was back to the Colt’s sideline. The equipment manager for the Colts informed the head coach that there might be something wrong with the ball. The Colts immediately informed the National Football League (NFL) representatives at the game (all games are attended by NFL personnel) and the NFL personnel instructed the referee to recollect all the balls for analysis during halftime of the game. Upon inspection, it turned out that 11 of the 12 footballs provided by the Patriots had become under-inflated since the time of the referee’s initial inspection of the footballs prior to the game. All of the Colt’s footballs were still inflated to the proper tolerances.
How did the Patriot’s footballs lose air pressure during the first half of the game?
The head coach of the New England Patriots, Bill Belichick, says there was no subterfuge on the part of him or his team. Instead, he offered a possible alternative explanation to any human intervention. As reported by The Washington Post:
Belichick said Saturday that the Patriots performed a study during the week and found that the methods they routinely use to get the footballs to the texture they want raises the air pressure by one pound per square inch.
According to Belichick, the Patriots’ study determined that once the footballs are outside in cold weather conditions for an extended period—after being initially tested in the locker room—the pressure drops by about 1.5 pounds per square inch. Once the footballs are brought back inside to be re-tested, the pressure rises by about 0.5 pounds per square inch, Belichick said.
Belichick said the team therefore concluded that, after having the footballs initially inflated to the minimum allowable 12.5 pounds per square inch, the combination of the footballs reaching their normal “equilibrium” after the pressure was temporarily raised by the process to get the proper texture, plus being exposed to weather conditions outside, caused them to drop below NFL specifications.
“The atmospheric conditions as well as the true equilibrium of the ball is critical to the measurement,” Belichick said.
In response to Belichick’s scientific explanation as to how the balls might have possibly become “naturally” deflated, none other than Bill Nye The Science Guy was asked by The ABC television show Good Morning America to offer his assessment of the explanation by Coach Belichick.
“What he (Coach Belechick) said didn’t make any sense … Rubbing the football, I don’t think, can change the pressure. To really change the pressure, you need one of these, the inflation needle.”
Could the temperature alone have effected the air pressure in the footballs? Sure. How severely is still a questions which unbiased scientists should be answering. The game-time temperature was 50 degrees Fahrenheit, and it dropped to the mid-40’s by the middle of the game. Not exactly “cold” conditions, by NFL standards. Games are regularly played in sub-freezing temperatures. If nothing else, the guideline of Occam’s Razor points in the direction of a person releasing air from the footballs. Perhaps the most damning evidence against the claims of Coach Belichick is the Colt’s footballs. If everything Belichick claims were true, then how does he account for the fact that the Colt’s footballs remained properly inflated?
The investigation by the NFL is still ongoing, and will not be concluded until after The Super Bowl is history. Unfortunately for the New England Patriots, the science they offer does not enhance their claims of innocence.