Eli Manning does a lot more to his footballs than just underinflate them. (Al Bello/Getty Images)
NY Times, November 2013 — When Eli Manning drops back to throw his first pass Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, the football in his hands will be as familiar as an old friend.
That is because the ball has been scoured, scrubbed, soaked and seasoned, a breaking-in process that takes months and ensures that every ball used by the Giants in a game will meet Manning’s exact preferences. The leather will have been softened, the grip enhanced and the overall feel painstakingly assessed.
For every N.F.L. game, each team has 12 to 20 balls that it has meticulously groomed and prepared according to the needs of its starting quarterback. The balls, brushed and primed using various obvious and semisecret techniques, bear the team logo and are switched out from sideline to sideline depending on which team is on offense.
That means that from series to series, the ball in play can feel wholly different, but each team’s quarterback always has a ball prepped by his equipment staff the way he likes it. … If a coach looking for a ball at practice should unwittingly approach one of the bags, the team’s equipment director, Joe Skiba, will pounce: “Get away, those are Eli’s game balls.”
Skiba added: “No one is allowed to touch those balls. They’re precious jewels. Too much work has gone into them.” …
Manning said he has never gotten the wrong ball in a game.
“I would know,” he said.
Let’s review, shall we?
Quarterback A, let’s call him Aaron, admits he likes footballs that have more air pressure in them than the NFL allows and defies the officials to do anything about it. This story is repeated by a network’s No. 1 broadcast team as a funny little anecdote in the middle of a Patriots game, but no one can remember hearing it because it just wasn’t that important. Aaron remains an adored media darling and his coach and team are revered throughout the land.
Quarterback B, let’s say his name is Brad, confesses he shelled out $7,500 in bribes to doctor up the 100 footballs he used when he won a Super Bowl. The universe shrugs and the coach he won it with is the toast of the football broadcasting world.
Quarterback E, Eli, if you will, has equipment guys scour, scrub, soak, season, fold, spindle, mutilate and guard his footballs with their lives. He and his coach are the heroes of a nation for the two times they vanquished the evil menace known as …
Quarterback T, for Tom, may or may not have started the AFC championship game with non-conforming footballs, but once they were removed from the game he went 12-for-14 for 155 yards, two touchdowns and 28 points in a half without them. For that, he and his coach are the cheatingest Cheatriots that ever cheated and there’s talk they should be killed with fire, their fields salted and their families banished from the land.
Is it unfair? Is there a double, quadruple and probably even googletruple standard at work here? Absolutely. But like I said before, I’m over wanting the world to like the Patriots. Embrace the hate. Brady doctors the footballs just like every other quarterback doctors the football. But he does it better. He does it winning more games, more playoff games, throwing more postseason touchdowns and God-willing winning more Super Bowls than anyone else. As a wise man once said, if you ain’t cheating by messin’ with the football, you ain’t tryin’.
When Brady does it, it’s a scandal. When the rest of the world does it, there’s nothing to see here. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.