Harvard Business School Takes NFL in a Deflategate Case

Recently, this article appeared on the forbes.com site penned by Roberta Holland. It will be interesting to see which way this goes. Deflategate, the pro football controversy that spawned a media frenzy, Twitter war, even a presidential joke, has a new claim to fame as a Harvard Business School case study.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

At the heart of Deflategate is the question of whether the New England Patriots cheated in their 2015 conference championship win over the Indianapolis Colts by tampering with the footballs. Accusers, which included the National Football League’s head office, said someone with the team underinflated the balls to make them easier for quarterback Tom Brady to throw.

The case study, written by HBS’s Marco Iansiti, the David Sarnoff Professor of Business Administration and head of the Technology and Operations Management unit, focuses on the data analysis used by the National Football League in its investigation and looks into the organizations involved. But Deflategate isn’t the only issue examined by the case. “What started essentially as an analytics exercise ended up as a much broader analysis of the data, the sport, the NFL, and how it’s organized and how it’s structured. So combining both the analytics angle and the organizational angle, you get a full understanding of the problem,” Iansiti says.

Iansiti and colleagues Michael Toffel, Ariel Stern, Joel Goh, Kris Ferreira, Shane Greenstein, and Willy Shih taught the case study, Deflategate and the National Football League, last month in their core course Technology and Operations Management. The case was rolled out to the entire first year of the MBA program comprising close to one thousand MBA students. “It was probably one of the most passionate case discussions that we’ve had,” Iansiti recalls. “We had lots of Jets fans, lots of Patriots fans, lots of Colts fans. Their initial hypotheses correlated quite a bit with where everybody was from and what teams they liked, but I have to say, at the end of the day, the truth prevailed.”

That truth will remain undisclosed for the benefit of future students discussing the case, but one thing Iansiti does reveal is that their analysis pointed to “a complete lack of understanding” of the actual physics involved with football by those who make their living off the game. The lessons to be learned from that stretch beyond Deflategate. “I don’t think this is about football at all. I think this is about human nature and organizations and performance,” Iansiti says. “The case shows that in any kind of environment, you’ve got to know your stuff. So from this perspective you can’t go ahead and accuse somebody of deflating a football without having a deep understanding of what pressure in those footballs should be.”

As Iansiti watched the AFC title game in January 2015, and the ensuing uproar, he was hooked. As an author of expert reports from time to time, Iansiti also was interested in the Wells Report, an NFL-commissioned probe into the alleged cheating, which was led by New York attorney Theodore Wells (HBS MBA’76). “We were looking for great examples in which to try out some analytics and analysis capability building exercises, and I thought this would be an interesting one,” says Iansiti, who describes himself as more of a soccer person. “The more I got into it, the more I read about it, it became more and more interesting and more and more fascinating, so it kind of drew me in.”

Iansiti read the Wells Report, the rebuttal by the American Enterprise Institute, and scores of other expert opinions and articles. He condensed the information and wrote the case study with help from case researcher Christine Snively. There was plenty of fodder to choose from, with everyone from Bill Nye the Science Guy to curmudgeonly Patriots head coach Bill Belichick weighing in on the Ideal Gas Law and its effects on a football’s pounds per square inch (PSI) of air pressure.

Tradition Of Success

The class discussion evolved from whether the Patriots were guilty of doctoring footballs to the larger issue of how the team sustains such a high, “astounding” performance rate year after year. For the latter, Iansiti used data on the Patriots’ wins and playoff record over the last 15 years, as well as their very low fumble rate since a 2006 rule change. (After 2007, the Patriots became league leaders in not fumbling the football — a prime reason for their sustained success.)

Roberta Holland is a writer based in Norwood, Massachusetts. Original article can be found here.

 

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