Sports & Entertainment

Deflategate, Watergate and lazy labeling

“Deflategate” has raised again the ugly specter of lazy labeling. And I for one am pleading, again, for it to stop.

I am as guilty as anyone in the media or cultural commentariat of grasping for a catchy squib of imagery to advance the audience’s understanding of the story. Frame the reference just right and reap the reward of a reader’s “aha!” moment.

A sports metaphor here, a movie allusion there, and we all jump to the same paragraph on the same page. I get it.

Thus it is not surprising that the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon begat the “-gate” that became a convenient suffix to indicate shame and wrongdoing. Unfortunately, this “-gate” never swings shut. And that is the problem. For nothing subsequent to the worst event of the ’70s (disco music was a close second) quite measures up to the seriousness of Watergate.

{mosads}Nixon committed a crime. He obstructed justice. He covered it up. He was impeached. He had to resign. For the first — and we hope, only — time in American history, a sitting president had to abdicate.

That was in 1974.

Since then, we have seen South Korean influence peddling in Congress (Koreagate) and President Carter’s brother Billy representing the Libyan government (Billygate). The Clinton administration brought us “Travelgate” (White House travel office employees fired for financial improprieties), “Nannygate” (attorney general nominees Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood both had to withdraw because they had hired undocumented workers as nannies) and “Troopergate” (Arkansas state troopers coming forth with allegations of securing female companionship for Bill Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas).

The “-gate” suffix seemingly has a shelf-life rivaled only by Twinkies. As recently as 2013, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) alleged vengeful shutdown of the George Washington Bridge became “Bridgegate.” And in 2014, gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist’s (D) insistence on having a small fan providing cool breezes to his steaming nether regions during a debate with Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) became “Fangate.”

There must be something about the sound of that phrase that rings especially powerful for Americans. Go through the alphabet, and you can associate almost every letter with a word rhying with “-gate”: ate, bait, crate, date, elate, fate, grate, hate … it goes on. The quality of mercy may not be strained, but the quantity of assonance is totally unrestrained when it comes to that overworked appendage, “-gate.”

And thus do we come to “Deflategate.” The New England Patriots are accused of having tampered with the air pressure in 11 of the 12 game balls used during their 42-7 victory over the Indianapolis Colts. Coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have been the team’s twin faces of innocence and denial.

It’s not the team’s first acquaintance with pushing the rules envelope. Yes, that’s right, they had a previous “-gate”: “Spygate.” In 2007, the Patriots videotaped opponents’ signals. The NFL slapped Belichick with a $500,000 fine, and the team was fined $250,000 and lost a first-round pick.

In neither case do the Patriots belong on the same ledger as Richard Nixon.

Oh, you can have some fun comparing “Watergate” and “Deflategate.”

Belichick’s convoluted analysis attributing the confluence of air pressure and meteorological factors causing his team’s footballs to lose air pressure (incidentally, rated “Mostly True” by PolitiFact) harkened back to theories of Nixon secretary Rosemary Wood’s superhuman contortions causing an “accidental” erasing of 18 minutes of Oval Office taped conversations.

The collective shoulder-shrugging by the Patriots is reminiscent of Nixon Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman and Special Counsel Chuck Colson’s insistence that reports of a cover-up in the Watergate break-in constituted a fantasy; nothing but a vast media conspiracy.

Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s demand for an apology by the NFL has a whiff of White House Press Secretary Ron Ziegler’s daily dismissals of the scandal, as if it were just about the “third-rate burglary” and nothing more.

I suppose seeing former Sen. Fred Thompson’s (R-Tenn.) ubiquitous reverse-mortgage commercials during the 48-hour Super Bowl pre-game show reminds some of the strapping young Thompson as a member of the Senate Watergate Committee.

For me, Deflategate is another diminution of the event that spawned it all. The moral choices on stage in the original 1970s drama were shocking and sobering: Nixon’s appointing of a special prosecutor, then firing him, and firing the attorney general and the deputy attorney general in order to do it; the Supreme Court having to weigh in on executive privilege, as all three branches of the government teetered together, dancing uncertainly on the head of a constitutional pin. The United States was in crisis, and blunders could have taken down the country. A conference championship or Super Bowl win pales.

Still, Deflategate should warn us as a society that we need honest and moral leaders. I am from Maine, but was living in New Jersey at the time of Watergate, so took special interest in watching a young then-Rep. William Cohen (R-Maine) reluctantly but firmly casting a vote to impeach a president from his own Republican party. And seeing House Judiciary Committee Chairman Peter Rodino (D-N.J.) conducting hearings with a sense of purpose and integrity. (I have been told that he cried after the vote to impeach).

There were others in Congress whose compass was true. And in the long view of historians, President Ford’s pardon of Nixon still stands as an act of conscience, not partisanship.

I feel pretty sure that not too many football fans would give the NFL high marks for its ethical priorities.

So as I climb off my high horse to join my fellow countrymen in our traditional swilling of suds, gathering round the digital campfire to watch 12 minutes of football surrounded by countless hours of commercials, analysis and writhing performers, I’ll forget about deflation, and not think about impeachment.

Until the next time someone slaps “-gate” on a paltry transgression.

Farley is managing editor and host of “The Morning Briefing” and “The Midday Briefing” on P.O.T.U.S., Sirius XM’s 24-hour politics channel.

Tags Bill Belichick Bridgegate Chuck Colson Deflategate Fred Thompson Gerald Ford H.R. Haldeman National Football League New England Patriots NFL Peter Rodino Richard Nixon Robert Kraft Ron Ziegler Spygate Super Bowl Super Bowl XLIX Tom Brady Watergate William Cohen

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video