Academics vs. ‘Ballghazi,’ Round 2

News outlets are no longer the only ones asking academics about the science of deflated footballs. Investigators for the National Football League have approached physics professors at Columbia University to help them understand how footballs supplied by the New England Patriots might have lost two pounds of air pressure during the first half of a conference championship game last week.

After first calling the university’s physics department, a representative of the law firm hired by the league to investigate the matter—which has become a national sensation in the run-up to this year’s Super Bowl—followed up with an email to the department, according to The New York Times.

“Just to confirm our call, we represent the N.F.L. in connection with the investigation into the footballs used during the A.F.C. championship game and would like to discuss engaging a professor of physics to consult on matters relating to gas physics and environmental impacts on inflated footballs,” Reisner said. “Please let me know whether there is a Columbia professor who may be interested in and appropriate for this assignment.”

William Zajc, a member of the department who declined to volunteer for the task, told the Times that he had been tempted to get involved just to clear up some of the bunk physics that has been thrown around since the controversy arose.

Meanwhile, a separate “Ballghazi” battle has broken out among statisticians. Warren Sharp, a statistician who runs a betting website, has published a series of analyses alleging that New England has committed suspiciously few fumbles in the seven years that teams have been allowed to supply their own footballs at games. (Underinflated balls are easier to grip, which supposedly makes fumbles less likely.) Mr. Sharp’s analyses were republished by several national publications, giving ammunition to those who suspect foul play by the Patriots.

But a pair of academics have since taken some air out of Mr. Sharp’s claims. Writing in Deadspin, Gregory J. Matthews, an assistant professor of statistics at Loyola University Chicago, and Michael Lopez, an assistant professor of statistics at Skidmore College, criticized Mr. Sharp’s work and then conducted their own analysis of available data on fumble rates over the same period.

The professors found that New England’s recent ability to avoid coughing up the ball, though better than most teams, was hardly a smoking gun. Patriots running backs have fumbled less often than their peers since 2007, they said, but only by about two fumbles per season, tops. And Patriots receivers weren’t even the best in the league at hanging on to the football.

Mr. Matthews and Mr. Lopez warned against being too credulous when somebody brings a lot of complicated-seeming data science to the table.

“There are some broad and relatively minor observations to be made, if you’re conspiratorially minded enough to make the effort.” the professors wrote. “They just don’t have the statistical muscle that you’d expect, given how widely they’ve traveled.”

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