Stan Veuger is a resident scholar at the Washington-based public policy think tank AEI and an author of a recent report discrediting the science in the the NFL-commissioned Wells Report which led, in part, to New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s four-game suspension for the “Deflategate” scandal.
Brady has appealed his suspension, and commissioner Roger Goodell is expected to issue a ruling this month. The Washington Times spoke with Veuger about how a policy wonk got interested in football, the reaction to the study among sports fans and the lack of data keeping done by the NFL.
Question: How did you get involved in doing research about the “Deflategate” scandal?
Answer: In 2012, one of my colleagues, Kevin Hassett, and I wrote an op-ed about “Bountygate,” the previous NFL scandal involving the New Orleans Saints’ system of paying bounties to players who injured opposing players. We enjoyed doing that. It was sort of a random side conversation that led to us wanting to test whether the Saints were actually injuring more people than they did, and they didn’t, so we provided testimony to the NFL and we thought, “Well, you know, this is interesting and a good change of pace from our normal activities.” Then, this year, the “Deflategate” report came out. It has a pretty significant statistical component, and Kevin was reading it and said we should write about this as well, and then we did.
Q: Do you have this occasional interest in sports just to get a change of pace? On the surface it seems unusual for someone at AEI to be investigating air pressure in footballs.
A: Yeah. This is not a method project. There’s 30 observations in the whole Wells Report of football pressure. The change of pace is — it’s of that nature. First of all, it’s a lot easier to get people to care about something you write if it’s about sports than if it’s about policy. Second, it’s a whole new media world you interact with. Different reporters, different outlets — different people we know care, and that’s the main difference. It obviously is a very different subject area and people have opinions. Random Patriots fans will call to thank us.
Q: Have you had any interaction with particularly rabid Patriots fans or sports fans?
A: People have — there’s a lot of people, apparently, as it turns out, who have given their time to this. We’ve gotten emails from people who have attached like five appendices with our own reports. That’s not what normally happens. And it’s not like two pages total we’re talking about here, either. You know? It’s like, serious work went into it.
Q: Are you a sports fan or a football fan?
A: I grew up in Europe, so growing up the sport I always paid attention to was soccer, and I guess I moved here too late for that to really change — so, not really. I watch games that friends care about. I don’t follow anything. I don’t follow football or baseball or basketball particularly closely. My main co-author is from Cleveland, so I have watched a lot of basketball games this year, but just to be able to moderate his mood and forecast it.
Q: Did it ever strike you, either when you were doing this project or with the “Bountygate” project, as absurd to move from researching debt or the economy to something about football?
A: In the end, it’s statistical analysis. Methodologically, it’s not different from a lot of the other work we do. It’s just that instead of whatever — people’s number of hours worked or income earned — the outcome variables are football pressure levels, you know? It’s not — it’s sort of the labels on the data points are different in a sense. That’s a very technocratic way of putting it, but that’s what it comes down to once you do the actual statistical analysis.
Q: Was it a challenge to do that, though, because a lot of the recordkeeping, whether it was due to the pressure gauges used or the lack of attention paid to writing down numbers with the footballs before the game or at halftime, did that make it particularly difficult?
A: Well, it adds additional layers of uncertainty. But, in a way, that’s basically impossible to correct for, so that’s an added concern, but it’s not something you would specifically take into account in the specific tests you run. You would just say, “Look, this is what the numbers they collected say,” but obviously, the numbers, the pressure levels collected before the game are vague recollections by a referee who may or may not have actually measured them. Certainly, the NFL doesn’t believe that he remembers which gauge he used, and the whole process wasn’t set up for it. They didn’t keep track of when they measured the footballs, what temperature it was at. If you believe the baseline narrative in the Wells Report, they swapped gauges at least once, but maybe three times, and you know, that’s pretty weird and it’s not normally what you would do. Essentially, since there are very few observations, it’s not like you can hope that large numbers will somehow compensate for these kinds of inaccuracies, so that obviously, if anything, that makes the conclusions they reach even weaker.
Q: Do you feel like the main accomplishment of your report is to show all these problems with the Wells Report? Or do you feel like you showed that and also came to your own conclusions about what actually happened?
A: I think the former is important. We say that their results aren’t as robust as they claim, but I think that the alternative narrative we came up with fits the data a lot better if you believe — it’s conditional on believing that the data they collected means something. I think the narrative we present is much more consistent with that than the narrative with the report.
Q: And you feel like the data that was collected is enough to do that in the first place?
A: So, if you assume that the data that they collected are reliable, which is a strong assumption, but if you do that, even then I think that our narrative is stronger. But obviously, the data as collected are not as reliable as you want. Look, I think the NFL just wasn’t ready to do this kind of analysis. They weren’t set up for it, otherwise they would have at least kept track of what gauges they were using to measure different footballs, you know? I mean, it feels very improvised after the fact.
Q: Do you feel like that should impact whatever disciplinary outcome that Brady gets?
A: Yeah, for sure. If part of the evidentiary basis for the punishment has been discounted, then I wouldn’t make that part count against him too much.
Q: Would you ever get involved in another sports-related issue in the future?
A: Yeah, for sure. This one ended up taking more time than I think we prognosticated, but sure. I would like to write something about soccer. Danny, my co-author, keeps telling me to write something that somehow indicates that LeBron James is the greatest basketball player of all time, but I don’t know how to make that point in any sort of convincing manner.
Q: So could there be a budding AEI sports wing?
A: That seems a little unlikely, but certainly these one-offs, I hope will continue.