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10 Things Done to Balls to Give Athletes a Competitive Edge

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"Deflate-gate," perhaps the worst-named scandal in NFL history, was born after 11 of 12 footballs used by the New England Patriots during their blowout victory in the AFC Championship Game were found to be inflated below the league-minimum threshold. The team under-inflated the balls by two and a half pounds per square inch, and the Patriots are now accused of ostensibly manipulating the equipment in order to make throwing and catching easier for their players.

There's over a week and a half until Super Bowl Sunday, meaning there will be no shortage of scorching hot takes on "deflate-gate." So, in order to pass the time and supply some context, here are 10 other examples of odd things done to balls in order to give athletes a competitive edge.

1. Over-inflate 'em

Sport: Football

Example: Aaron Rodgers

How does it help?: Sitting diametrically opposite the Patriots is Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who has said he likes his footballs over-inflated. "The majority of the time, they take air out of the football," Rodgers said in a radio interview. "I think that, for me, is a disadvantage."

He attributes his large hands for this preference, and says he gets a better feel from a fully pumped ball. "If you don't have strong grip pressure or smaller hands, an advantage to having a flat football, though, because that is easier to throw." While this is not an advantage, per se, it is a preference, and one he is particular about. "There should be a minimum on the air pressure but not a maximum. Every game they're taking air out of the footballs I'm throwing, and I think that's a disadvantage for the way that I like them prepped."

2. File 'em with a nail file or sandpaper (or both)

Sport: Baseball

Example: Joe Niekro

How does it help?: After Twins pitcher Joe Niekro threw a nasty slider during the second inning of an August 3, 1987 game against the Angels, the umpire walked up to investigate. When he got to the mound, an emery board fell out of Niekro's pocket. Upon further inspection, the ump found a piece of sandpaper "contoured to fit a finger." Niekro was ejected and had to serve a 10-game suspension.

Afterwards, Niekro said, "I'll be honest with you, I always carry two things out there with me. An emery board and a small piece of sandpaper. I've done that ever since I started throwing the knuckleball. Being a knuckleball pitcher, I sometimes have to file my nails between innings. So I carry an emery board with me to the mound."

That's a nice explanation, but the more likely story is that Niekro didn't need to supress his superhuman nail growth and instead used the file and sandpaper to rough the balls up to add unpredictability to their trajectory. According to Angels manager Gene Mauch, "Those balls weren't roughed up, those balls were borderline mutilated."

3. Rub Vaseline On 'Em

Sport: Baseball

Example: Gaylord Perry

How does it help?: Perry was known throughout his career for adding petroleum jelly to baseballs, making them "spitballs." He'd lather his hat or his sleeve with the stuff and slyly rub it on the balls. The viscosity of the Vaseline would cause the ball to slip out of his hand with little-to-no backspin, fooling batters. He was even known to pretend to put it on to keep batters on their toes. Despite releasing an autobiography in the '70s titled Me and the Spitter, Perry wasn't caught until 1982 during his 655th start. He was ejected from the game.

4. Cut 'Em With a Wedding Ring

Sport: Baseball

Example: Whitey Ford

How does it help?: Cutting the ball can give the same effect of scuffing it, and it will alter its flight to the catcher. Ford was known to slice balls up with his wedding ring. He would also slather baseballs with mud and "gunk"—a mix of baby oil, turpentine, and resin—to turn them into spitters.

5. Cut 'em With Thumbtacks

Sport: Baseball

Example: Rick Honeycutt

How does it help?: It didn't. In an attempt to get an edge in a 1980 game, Rick Honeycutt removed a thumbtack from a stadium bulletin board and taped it to his finger. "It didn't do anything for me," he recalls. "I didn't know what I was doing at the time. I only did it once and I did it badly and got caught at it." He used the tack to scratch up the ball—and his face. Honeycutt accidentally wiped his brow and opened a gash. He was caught red-handed and red-faced and was ejected, suspended for 10 games, and fined $250.

6. Freeze 'Em

Sport: Baseball

Example: Chicago White Sox

How does it help?: In the late '60s, the White Sox were over-reliant on quality pitching, so Gene Bossard, the Comiskey Park groundskeeper, would freeze the baseballs to give the Sox rotation an added edge. His son recalls, "In the bowels of the old stadium my dad had an old room where the humidifier was constantly going. By leaving the balls in that room for 10 to 14 days, they became a quarter to a half ounce heavier." This would reduce the balls' bounce, making it harder to pop home runs off the pitchers.

7. Pay Guys to Rough 'Em Up

Sport: Football

Example: Brad Johnson

How does it help?: Before Super Bowl XXXVII, Tamba Bay Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson was worried that the brand-new footballs supplied by the NFL would be too slick to provide an effective grip. "[Opposing quaterback] Rich [Gannon] and I talked about it. The footballs needed to be worked in,'' Johnson recalls. "In years past, you heard Troy Aikman, John Elway and Steve Young complain about the balls being slick. Phil Simms, all of them. And basically we agreed on that if the balls could be—if we could work them in, we'd work them in.''

Johnson paid two ball boys a combined $7,500 to beat the balls to a grippy pulp. "I paid some guys off to get the balls right,'' Johnson said. "They took care of them.'' The Bucs won 48-21.

8. Rub Dirt on 'Em

Sport: Cricket

Example: Michael Atherton

How does it help?: England national team captain Michael Atherton was accused of keeping dirt in his pocket to rub on match balls in 1994. In order to get the ball to reverse swing—where the rotation is opposite the bowler's throw and comes on later and with more force—the ball has to be dry on one side. He told reporters, "The dirt in my pocket was used to dry my fingers because it was a hot and humid day."

He hadn't done anything technically illegal at the time, but because he hadn't notified the umpire beforehand, he was fined £2,000. He retained his captaincy, but his reputation was soured by the incident.

9. Bite 'Em

Sport: Cricket

Example: Shahid Afridi

How does it help?: In 2010, Pakistani cricket player Shahid Afridi was suspended for two internationals for biting a ball. He maintained that this practice—done to manipulate the seams and, thusly, the flight of the ball—is common in international cricket. Nonetheless, he was caught on camera and had to serve his suspension.

10. Manufacture 'Em And Buy A Corporate Sponsorship

Sport: Soccer

Example: Adidas Jabulani

How does it help?: As part of their sponsorship with FIFA, Adidas introduces a new ball for every World Cup. Each new ball is heralded as a scientific achievement by both organizations, but, in reality, their very existence can only be explained as a ploy to sell more balls. Worst of all, the "new and improved" equipment can behave differently than players are used to.

This was the case for the Jabulani, which was used in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. It was manufactured with eight thermally-bonded panels spherically-molded from fromethylene-vinyl acetate. It was remarkably lightweight, and the surface was unlike any soccer ball ever used before. It flew through the the air wildly, much to the dismay of goalkeepers. Brazil keeper Julio Cesar called it a "supermarket ball," and Italy's Gianluigi Buffon said, "It is very sad that a competition so important as the world championship will be played with such a horrible ball."

BONUS: Exploit the laws of physics on 'em

Sport: Soccer

Example: Roberto Carlos

How did it happen?: In 1997, Brazil left back Roberto Carlos struck one of the most famous goals of all time during a friendly against France. It was called a fluke by many, and to understand why, you have to watch it from the camera angle placed directly behind Carlos. He hits through the ball with incredible force and it flies so far to the right of the post, a ball boy flinches to avoid the seemingly errant strike. It doesn't go where you'd think physics would permit it, however, and the ball boomerangs back in, leaving the goalkeeper Barthez planted to the ground, so stunned he can barely muster a "sacre bleu."

French physicists studied the goal to determine how it happened. Carlos hit the ball hard enough that he created the spin required to "minimize the effect of gravity." Because it was so far away (115 feet from the goal), we are able to see with the naked eye the effects of how a fast-spinning sphere can eliminate air turbulence and hold off gravity for long enough to bend through space.

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9 Things You Might Not Know About 'Macho Man' Randy Savage
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Even by the standards of pro wrestling and its exaggerated personalities, there’s never been anyone quite like Randy “Macho Man” Savage (1952-2011). A staple of WWE and WCW programming in the 1980s and 1990s, Savage’s bulging neck veins, hoarse voice, and inventive gesticulations made him a star. Check out some facts in honor of what would’ve been Savage’s 65th birthday.

1. HE WAS ORIGINALLY A PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL PLAYER.

Born Randall Poffo in Columbus, Ohio, Savage’s father, Angelo Poffo, was a notable pro wrestler in the 1950s, sometimes wrestling under a mask with a dollar sign on it as “The Masked Miser.” If that was considered the family business, Savage initially strayed from it, pursuing his love of baseball into a spot on the St. Louis Cardinals farm team as a catcher directly out of high school. Savage played nearly 300 minor league games over four seasons. After failing to make the majors, he decided to follow his father into wrestling.

2. A HAWAIIAN WRESTLER INSPIRED HIS FAMOUS TAGLINE.

In 1967, a then-15-year-old Savage accompanied his father to a wrestling event in Hawaii. There, he saw island grappler King Curtis Iaukea deliver a “promo,” or appeal for viewers to watch him in a forthcoming match. Iaukea spoke in a whisper before bellowing, punctuating his sentences with, “Ohhh, yeah!” That peculiar speech pattern stuck with Savage, who adopted it when he began his career in the ring.

3. HIS MOM GAVE HIM THE “MACHO MAN” NICKNAME.


By John McKeon from Lawrence, KS, United States - Randy "Macho Man" Savage, CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

According to Savage, his wrestling nickname didn’t come from the Village People song but from an article his mother, Judy, had read in Reader’s Digest announcing that “macho man” was going to be a hot term in the coming years. She mailed it to Savage along with a list of other possible names. Even though neither one seemed to know what a “macho man” was, Savage liked the sound of it. His stage name, Savage, came from Georgia promoter Ole Anderson, who thought Savage’s grappling style was ferocious.

4. HE SCARED OTHER WRESTLERS.

In the early 1980s, Savage’s father had started promoting his own regional shows in the Lexington, Kentucky area. To draw publicity, Savage and the other wrestlers would sometimes show up to rival shows threatening grapplers and offering up wagers that they could beat them up in a real fight. Once, a Memphis wrestler named Bill Dundee pulled a gun on Savage, who allegedly took it away from him and beat him with it. After his father’s promotion closed up, Savage landed in the WWF (now WWE), giving him a national platform.

5. JAKE THE SNAKE’S PYTHON PUT HIM IN THE HOSPITAL.

One of Savage’s recurring feuds in the WWE was with Jake “The Snake” Roberts, a lanky wrestler who carried a python into the ring with him and allowed the reptile to “attack” his opponents. To intensify their rivalry, Savage agreed to allow Roberts’s snake to bite him on the arm during a television taping after being assured it was devenomized. Five days later, Savage was in the hospital with a 104-degree fever. Savage lived, but the snake didn’t; it died just a few days later. “He was devenomized, but maybe I wasn’t,” Savage told IGN in 2004. 

6. HE PLANNED HIS MATCHES DOWN TO THE SECOND.

While outcomes may be planned backstage, the choreography of pro wrestling is left largely up to the participants, who either talk it over prior to going out or call their moves while in the ring. For a 1987 match with Ricky Steamboat at Wrestlemania III, Savage wanted everything to be absolutely perfect.

“We both had those yellow legal tablets, and we started making notes,” Steamboat told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “Randy would have his set of notes and I would have mine. Then we got everything addressed—number 1, number 2, number 3—and we went up to number 157. Randy would say, ‘OK, here is up to spot 90, now you tell me the rest.’ I would have to go through the rest, then I would quiz him. I’d never planned out a match that way, so it was very stressful to remember everything.” The effort was worth it: Their match is considered by many fans to be among the greatest of all time.

7. HIS MARRIAGE TO MISS ELIZABETH CAUSED PROBLEMS IN THE LOCKER ROOM.

Savage’s “valet” in the WWE was Miss Elizabeth, a fixture of his corner during most of his career in the 1980s. Although they had an onscreen wedding in 1991, they had been married in real life back in 1984. According to several wrestlers, Savage was jealously guarded with his wife, whom he kept in their own locker room. Savage would also confront wrestlers he believed to have been hitting on her. The strain of working and traveling together was said to have contributed to their (real) divorce in 1991.

8. HE CUT A RAP ALBUM DISSING HULK HOGAN.

In 2003, with his best years in the ring behind him, Savage decided to pursue a new career in rap music. Be a Man featured 13 rap songs, including one that eulogized his late friend, “Mr. Perfect” Curt Hennig. But the performance that got the most mainstream attention was the title track, which dissed wrestling star Hulk Hogan. The two had apparently gotten into a rivalry after Hogan made some disparaging comments about Savage on a Tampa, Florida radio show. Whether the sentiment was real or staged, it didn’t do much to help sales: Be a Man moved just 3000 copies.

9. HE MIGHT GET A STATUE IN HIS HOMETOWN.

In 2016, fans circulated a petition to get Savage his own statue in Columbus, Ohio. The initiative was inspired by the fact that Arnold Schwarzenegger has a monument in Columbus, and wrestling fans argue that Savage should get equal time. The mayor has yet to issue a response. In the meantime, a 20-inch-tall resin statue of Savage was released by McFarlane Toys in 2014.

See Also: 10 Larger-Than-Life Facts About Andre the Giant

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10 Secrets of Ski Instructors
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If you’ve spent this fall wearing shorts and sandals, you’re not alone: Temperatures have been warmer than average across the United States. But no matter how warm it is where you are, there’s still snow (and skiing) in the forecast somewhere. Before you hit the slopes this winter, check out these on-the-job secrets of ski instructors, from why they love bad weather to what they do during the summer.

1. THEY LOVE BAD WEATHER.

No one can control the weather, but ski instructors cross their fingers for frosty temperatures and heavy snowfall. “Ski instructors love cold, appalling winter weather because it so often results in big snowfalls and the skier's dream—velvety powder snow,” says Chalky White, a ski instructor and the author of The 7 Secrets of Skiing.

But big snowfalls don’t always happen, so ski instructors try to make the best of whatever weather they encounter on a given day. Tony Macri of Snow Trainers, a ski and snowboard training company based in Colorado and New Zealand, tells Mental Floss that the weather’s unpredictability makes ski instructing an adventure. “I never think that weather is disappointing,” he says. “It is what creates more challenge and mystery in every day, versus going back to your cubicle that always has the same florescent light shining down on you.”

2. SOME OF THEM HAVE A BEEF WITH SNOWBOARDERS.

Although some ski instructors also teach (and love) snowboarding, the majority of them try to stay away from snowboarders on the slopes, at least when they’re teaching. “[Snowboarders] tend to push all the fresh snow down the hill with their natural movements. Gets pretty frustrating!” justind99, a ski instructor in Quebec, writes in a Reddit AMA.

But other ski instructors have a more zen attitude when it comes to snowboarders and preach coexistence. “We are all here to have fun,” rbot1, a ski instructor in Salt Lake City, says in a Reddit AMA. “The snowboarder vs skier stigma does nothing but cause problems. Share the mountain!”

3. THEIR CERTIFICATION PROCESS IS INTENSE.

Ski instructor teaching adults

Depending on the country in which they become certified, ski instructors must take classes and pass a series of tests to prove their proficiency. In the U.S., the Professional Ski Instructors of America and American Association of Snowboard Instructors (PSIA-AASI) establishes certification requirements for instructors. Once instructors become certified, they can take additional tests of their technical skills to earn higher levels of certification.

“Level 1 is pretty easy to get. Anyone that can ski a blue square comfortably can pass a level 1 exam,” rbot1 says. But achieving certification for higher levels is more challenging, requiring ski instructors to demonstrate their mastery of various turns, bump runs, and drills. “A single mistake in any of those runs nets you a fail,” says rbot1, who spent two years preparing for his Level 2 test. “These drills might be easy to complete, but you have to do it perfectly.”

4. THEY’VE SEEN SOME GNARLY ACCIDENTS.

Although some people think of skiing as a risky activity, ski instructors insist that, statistically, skiing is no more hazardous than many other sports. That said, most ski instructors have seen at least one nasty injury on the slopes, including broken legs and noses, concussions, and shoulder dislocations. “The worst injury I ever witnessed was a spinal fracture from a kid landing on his back after attempting to do a jump in the snow park area,” justind99 says.

“I have seen some injuries to knees, but the worst was when a friend concussed himself so bad that he was knocked out and was actually sleeping with his eyes open,” Macri says. White tells Mental Floss that a helicopter once picked him up from the slopes because medics suspected that he’d broken his neck. “Good news—I didn’t."

5. THEIR PAY ISN’T GREAT.

The income ski instructors make can vary widely, based on where they teach and their level of expertise. Some instructors earn $10 or $11 an hour for group lessons but charge more for private lessons or longer coaching sessions. While most beginning ski instructors may make just $20,000 per year, the perks of getting paid to ski outweigh the lack of cash for many instructors. “I do understand that at some point I’ll need to either start working really hard to boost my earning potential as an instructor or find another field,” rbot1 says. “For now, it’s a blast.”

6. THEY GET CREATIVE TO TEACH KIDS.

Ski instructor teaching children

A group of young kids bundled up in ski jackets while they try to balance on narrow skis might look adorable, but teaching children to ski comes with plenty of challenges. “Some kids don't have the muscles to do it at [a young] age and some do,” explains inkybus21, a ski and snowboard instructor who has taught in Canada, Australia, and Japan. To make sure his young students don’t lose interest or give up, he makes up games that require various skiing motions and uses visuals to help kids figure out how to properly use their bodies.

7. THEIR EQUIPMENT IS EXPENSIVE.

Ski equipment can be pricey, and ski instructors know the pain of an empty wallet firsthand. From skis and boots to bindings, poles, helmets, goggles, and other accessories, ski instructors can easily spend over $1000 on their equipment. And because their gear gets more use than a casual skier’s, instructors typically go through a pair of skis, boots, and liners each season. But many instructors are eligible for steep discounts on their gear, thanks to their employer or their PSIA-AASI membership. “I haven't bought anything at retail price in years,” rbot1 says. “I can’t even imagine paying full price for a pair of boots or ski/binder set up.”

8. THEY MISS SKIING DURING THE SUMMER.

In a career dependent on the winter season, what do ski instructors do during the summer? Some of them travel to the opposite hemisphere to work at a ski resort—essentially working two winters in a row. But because it can be costly to travel and live on another continent, most ski instructors work odd jobs or use their savings to rock climb and explore the outdoors in the off season. Rbot1, for example, has spent his summers working at a ski resort’s restaurant, boxing fish at an Alaskan processing plant, and living off of his savings. “Most people have a seasonal job. The most popular is raft guiding, the second most popular is working at a state park,” he says.

9. THEY GREATLY APPRECIATE TIPS.

Ski instructors don’t always receive tips from their students, and they wish more people knew that they welcome—and in some cases, expect—gratuity. Rbot1 recounts the story of how he once earned $1500, his biggest tip to date, after instructing a family of four for five days, taking them to different parts of the mountain and even eating lunch with them. “At the end of the week it was all hugs and smiles, but my hand was left dry,” he says. “Anyways, next day I got an email that said ‘you have a tip in the office’ and BOOM $1500 in an envelope.” Rbot1 made good use of the generous tip, paying two months of rent and car payments, as well as buying new ski goggles and gloves.

10. THEY LOVE HELPING PEOPLE OVERCOME THEIR FEARS.

Although skiing is good exercise and an enjoyable winter activity, learning to ski can also help people feel more confident. “It’s not always about skiing and teaching people to be the best skiers,” Macri says. “A lot of [the job] is just about showing people a good time and helping them achieve their goals or overcoming their fears.”

Macri particularly appreciates the amazing views from the top of a mountain, as well as the feeling he gets when he takes students down a great run and everyone high-fives one another in joy. “I sit back and think this is my office and I am having just as amazing [a] time as everyone else. The only difference is that I am getting paid for it,” he says.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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