10 Things Done to Balls to Give Athletes a Competitive Edge
"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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.