There’s a war underway between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, and it has little to do with on-field performance. Both teams are in the midst of public relations' battles that could undermine fan support ahead of their highly anticipated Super Bowl XLIX matchup Sunday.
Patriots personnel, including head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady, fielded endless questions over the past two weeks related to “Deflategate,” while the Seahawks grappled with star running back Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to speak with the media. Without a clear-cut favorite for gamblers or any pre-existing regional rivalries, fence-sitting spectators may turn to likability to determine who they’ll root for come Super Bowl Sunday. Questions about the Patriots’ integrity have established them as the game’s villain, many said.
“If you had to say who’s put on the black hat for this game, I think at this point it’s certainly the Patriots,” Jack Deschauer, a crisis-management expert and a vice president at public relations firm Levick in Washington, D.C., said. “I don’t think Mr. Brady’s press conference did much for the Patriots to get out of that.”
The NFL is days away from the climatic game of the 2014-15 season, but discussions about the “Deflategate” scandal have trumped the debate on who will emerge victorious. Questions emerged after Indianapolis Colts linebacker D’Qwell Jackson intercepted a Brady pass during the second quarter of the 2015 AFC Championship game. Jackson brought the ball to the sideline, where Colts staffers grew suspicious about whether the Patriots’ game balls were adequately inflated to meet the NFL’s minimum standard. Deflated footballs can be easier to grip and to throw, a benefit during the kind of poor weather experienced at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 18.
The subsequent uproar grew to such levels that the NFL launched a formal investigation last week into whether the Patriots deliberately deflated footballs to gain an unfair competitive advantage. Initial investigative efforts found that 11 of 12 game balls the Patriots supplied for the AFC Championship were below inflation standards.
Belichick denied any wrongdoing at a Jan. 22 press conference and referred questions to Brady, who met with the media on his own later that day. Brady repeatedly denied he had doctored the game balls in any way and said he "was as surprised as anybody" to hear the allegations against the Patriots. "I feel like I have always played within the rules. I would never break the rules," Brady said, according to ESPN.
But fans and pundits alike have been slow to trust a franchise whose head coach was fined an unprecedented $500,000 in 2008 for ordering a Patriots assistant to secretly videotape opposing teams’ defensive signals. It will be weeks until the NFL makes a determination on “Deflategate,” but the implication is clear -- fans associate the Patriots, regardless of the truth of the matter, with cheating.
For the Seahawks, Lynch’s tug-of-war with the media and league officials has generated plenty of negative publicity as well. The 28-year-old running back has been open about his dislike for the press and flatly refuses to expound on any questions he’s asked at press conferences.
The NFL has fined Lynch a total of $100,000 this season for not talking to the media. As a result, Lynch adopted a policy of answering questions with as few words as possible. He answered nearly every question at a November press conference with the word “Yeah.” Weeks later, Lynch said “thanks for asking” each time a reporter addressed him.
The trend continued at NFL Media Day on Tuesday, a daylong event during which the media is granted full access to players from each Super Bowl team. Lynch repeatedly said “I’m just here so I won’t get fined.” Though his answers were technically not in violation of NFL rules, sources said Lynch might be fined anyway for wearing a non-approved logo on his hat, according to ESPN. Lynch’s transgressions also extend to the field. He was fined twice this season for grabbing his crotch after a touchdown.
Neither Deflategate nor Lynch’s actions reflect well on their respective franchises, but there's a distinct difference in the manner in which they are received by the general public, many said. Lynch’s behavior, while confrontational, is seen as a dispute with the NFL league office, which fans have increasingly viewed in a negative light after its botched handling of this season’s domestic violence incidents involving former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice and Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
Suddenly, Lynch is an anti-establishment figure, pitted against an organization fewer and fewer fans support. On the other hand, the public perceives the “Deflategate” scandal as a clear attempt by the Patriots to gain an unfair competitive advantage over the rest of the league.
“It’s interesting the way in which Seattle’s breaking the rules has been perceived as sticking it to the man and being anti-corporate and being cool and being all about fun and the Patriots breaking the rules has been all about cheating,” Keith Strudler, director of the Marist College Center for Sports Communication in Poughkeepsie, New York, said. “I think that might have something to do with the perception of the Patriots as this kind of evil empire to start with … easily, Seattle is winning this war.”
The Patriots’ sustained success in the Brady-Belichick era only exacerbates the negative perception. The “Spygate” and “Deflategate” scandals haven’t stopped New England from racking up six Super Bowl appearances and 12 division titles since Brady took over at quarterback. The franchise’s detractors look with increasing suspicion on Patriots owner Robert Kraft’s close relationship with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who attended a party at Kraft's mansion after the AFC Championship game.
“Will they be punished [for Deflategate]? Probably not,” Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said Monday, according to ESPN. "Not as long as Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. You talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all. Nothing will stop them.”
Belichick has been undeniably successful as a head coach, with a .659 career winning percentage and three Super Bowl titles to his name. But the same gruff, businesslike demeanor that Patriots fans have grown to love and respect from the face of their franchise also serves to antagonize the rest of the nation, particularly in light of Deflategate. The Patriots’ longterm success and seeming indifference to negative publicity have established them as the NFL’s version of baseball’s New York Yankees, the “Evil Empire.”
“I don’t think, in any way, that the New England Patriots have any vested interest in winning the PR war,” Strudler said. “From an institutional level, I don’t think they care.”
Conversely, Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll’s affable, media-friendly demeanor has served to gloss over the team’s issues with public relations. Fans relate to Carroll when they see him sprinting down the sideline to celebrate a victory, Brad Brown, president of sports and entertainment consulting at Leverage Agency in New York City, said. Carroll’s likability as the Seahawks’ front man has allowed his players to avoid the kind of publicity that has dogged the Patriots.
“[Carroll] seems a little more non-confrontational, a little bit more aloof, a little bit more happy-go-lucky,” Brown said. “I think from that perspective, especially for the media, which is the frontline voice for the fans, I do believe that he is diffusing that type of confrontation, which I think has been a tremendous positive for the Seahawks, which in turn has allowed them to fly under the radar, do their thing and get ready to win.”