WASHINGTON — Beer, Benjamin Franklin supposedly said but almost certainly didn‚??t, is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Without cannonballing into deep theological waters, perhaps Deflategate proves the same thing.
This scrumptious NFL pratfall — think of someone insufferably self-important stepping on a banana peel; hello, Donald Trump — has come to lighten the mood of America‚??s annual Wretched Excess Season. It consists of the days — this year, 12 of them — between the State of the Union address and the final merciful tick of the clock of the Super Bowl.
The State of the Union has become, under presidents of both parties, a political pep rally degrading to everyone. The judiciary and uniformed military should never attend. And Congress, by hosting a spectacle so monarchical in structure (which is why Thomas Jefferson sent his thoughts to Congress in writing) deepens the diminishment of the legislative branch as a mostly reactive servant of an overbearing executive.
Catching the State of the Union‚??s rising wave of choreographed spontaneity and synthetic earnestness, the nation then surfs into the long run-up to the Super Bowl. This storm before the storm delivers hurricane-force gusts of anticipatory analysis forecasting the minute nuances of enormous people throwing their weight around. The chatter culminates in 60 minutes of actual football — men risking concussions and other crippling injuries for our amusement. And for selling beer (see above) and other stuff.
Game Day XLIX (Roman numerals are attached to Super Bowls as to popes, but with less reason than for the bishop of Rome) will be swaddled in many pre-game hours of advertising leavened by eruptions of patriotic kitsch. So, herewith a suggested pre-game reading: Ben Fountain‚??s Iraq War novel ‚??Billy Lynn‚??s Long Halftime Walk.‚?Ě It is set not at a Super Bowl but at a Thanksgiving Day NFL game in Dallas, so the difference is of degree, and not much of that.
Anyway, this year the tedium of Wretched Excess Season has been relieved by Deflategate, itself a permutation of wretched excess. Unless you have allowed yourself to be distracted by the dismemberment of Ukraine, Islamic State beheadings and counting the U.S. military personnel in Iraq that are not wearing real boots that are actually on the ground, you know this:
When the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl berth by defeating the Indianapolis Colts 45-7, 11 footballs in the Patriots‚?? custody, and for the team‚??s use on offense, were filled with less air than NFL rules require, making them easier to pass and catch. Perhaps the 11 balls spontaneously lost exactly the same amount of air in the 2 hours or so between when the officials checked them and kickoff. Religions have been founded on less startling occurrences, but judge not lest ye be judged to be judgmental.
The Patriots‚?? head coach, Bill Belichick, a detail-obsessed martinet of Prussian severity but without even a Junker‚??s flair for jollity, says he is stumped. Perhaps a rogue equipment manager decided on his own to put deflated balls into the famously and exquisitely sensitive hands of the Patriots‚?? $27 million quarterback, Tom Brady, who never noticed. There has not been such an unmysterious mystery since an 18-and-a-half-minute gap occurred in President Nixon‚??s White House tapes of a conversation between Nixon and his chief of staff in the Oval Office three days after the Watergate break-in.
Concerning cheating, let the sport that is without sin cast the first scuffed baseball. Baseball players have tampered with themselves (e.g., performance-enhancing drugs) and their equipment (e.g., corked bats). Teams with creative groundskeepers have given an outward tilt to infield foul lines when a team adept at bunting comes to town. And on at least one occasion a gifted base stealer has reached first base only to find himself standing in a muddy swamp on an otherwise dry infield.
But let us not allow fallen humanity‚??s sins to spoil today‚??s fun. On the second-highest calorie-consumption day of every year (second to Thanksgiving), we celebrate the end of Wretched Excess Season by gathering around our televisions, as around a continental campfire. In this communal experience we say: Take the day off, better angels of our nature, because nothing says America like football played indoors in air conditioning on grass in the desert.
Tomorrow, we will still not be sure who or what blew up the USS Maine in Havana harbor on Feb. 15, 1898. But it would be good to know the whereabouts of the Patriots‚?? equipment manager that day.