As the NFL pumps up its investigation into the controversy now known as “Deflate-gate,” the governing bodies of South Carolina high school and college football teams say it’s a flat issue here in the Palmetto State.
“To my knowledge, I’ve never experienced a problem where there’s been an issue with the over-inflation or under-inflation of footballs,” said Bruce Hulion, commissioner of officials for the S.C. High School League.
The NFL controversy arose following the New England Patriots’ big win over the Indianapolis Colts in the AFC title game on Jan. 18.
New England won 45-7. The Patriots will face the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl on Feb. 1.
After the AFC title game, reports surfaced that New England’s balls were underinflated in the first half. The NFL is investigating whether the balls were intentionally flattened.
Hulion, who has more than 50 years of officiating experience, couldn’t recall a time when a high school team altered the inflation of a football.
He said balls aren’t tested before games and because it’s never been an issue, he’s unaware of any prescribed penalty. The NFL’s investigation of the New England Patriots is over-inflated, he said.
“It’s much ado about nothing,” he said. “I think it’s more about a dead period in football and they’re looking for something to write about.”
Neither has there been any known football inflation complaints in college football, said Doug Rhoads, coordinator of officials for the Big South and ACC conferences. Rhoads also serves as coordinator for independent FBS schools, such as Army, BYU and Western Kentucky.
In 39 years of officiating with the ACC, Rhoads never heard of any complaints at the college level. He expects the issue to receive discussion during an upcoming rules committee meeting.
“There may be some discussion in there, but we’ve been playing the game for 140 years an there’s never been an issue,” Rhoads said.
What the rules say
So what constitutes a legal football?
Rhoads said college rules mirror the NFL in that footballs must have 12.5 to 13.5 pounds of pressure. Referees test the balls no later than 60 minutes before kickoff before presenting the balls to each team.
Those balls are used for the entire game, though sometimes in inclement weather such as heavy rain or snow, new footballs may be introduced after halftime.
Every team has its own set of game balls that are only used in games. Rules state they must be new or nearly new.
Rhoads said it’s not uncommon for balls to lose pressure during the course of a game.
Usually it’s due to weather conditions, especially in the cold, which can cause footballs to lose pressure. In those cases, game officials will remove the ball from the game, substituting it with another.
“Maybe it was 12.1 pounds of pressure during the game,” he said. “Maybe it’s hot in dressing room and cold outside.”
High school footballs must also have between 12.5 and 13.5 pounds of pressure. Game officials don’t test air pressure before the game, though seasoned referees can tell whether or not a football is compliant, Hulion said.
“If you’ve been around long enough, you know if it’s deflated or has enough air,” he said. “The refs will squeeze them and it’s pretty easy to determine whether it’s a Nerf ball or a [compliant] football.”
The issue is significant because many believe under-inflated footballs give quarterbacks and receivers an unfair advantage by making the ball easier to throw or catch. Neither Rhoads nor Hulion think lower air pressures make much difference.
“I would think it would be more difficult to throw,” an under-inflated ball, Rhoads said. “It might be easier to catch – one would offset the other – but I think it would be more difficult to throw than a normally inflated ball.”
When the NFL launched its investigation into the New England team footballs, it was an extremely rare occurrence.
If the league determines New England intentionally deflated the footballs, possible penalties range from fines to loss of draft picks.
But what if it happened in high school or college?
Because it’s never happened – at least in Rhoads’ and Hulion’s tenures – the answer isn’t clear.
Rhoads said college referees wouldn’t sanction the team since it’s likely the discovery would come after the game.
Even if an official caught someone red-handed deflating a ball, there’s no penalty flag for that occurrence.
Rhoads said the referee would simply remove the ball from the game. Enforcement, he said, would fall to the team’s athletic conference.
In that respect, it would be handled similarly to targeting or fighting, which typically draw one-game suspensions, Rhoads said.
“That would be a conference policy. It would be up to a conference to address that as a code of conduct issue,” he said. “The NCAA doesn’t have that authority.”
Mark Simpson, spokesman for the Big South Conference, agreed it would fall under the league’s code of conduct policy, but added officials would defer to the NCAA for guidance.
“There are probably some parameters we’d be able to handle with that, such as unethical gamesmanship,” Simpson said. “Hypothetically if the NCAA says it’s a one-game suspension, we may say it deserves a two-game suspension. We could probably go above and beyond that.”
Attempts to reach an NCAA official to discuss football inflation were unsuccessful. Hulion said he was unaware of any penalties at the high school level, mainly because it’s never happened before.
“It hasn’t presented itself as a problem at the high school level,” he said. “We follow all NCAA-related rules related to game operations.”