Although the NFL's rules about altering game balls are pretty straightforward (it's not allowed, in any form), that doesn't stop players from trying. Most recently, the Patriots have been accused of deflating 11 of their 12 balls to a squishier level in a 45-7 victory over the Colts.
By now, most of America knows that the balls are required to be inflated to 12.5-13.5 pounds per square inch. Officials do a quality check, including checking air pressure, marking each ball that passes. But the balls aren't closely guarded during the game.
In her book, "Newton's Football: The Science Behind America's Game," co-author Ainissa Ramirez lists ways players have tried to alter the ball: microwaving it, steambathing it, hammering it, dipping it in milk, rubbing it with Astroturf or dousing it with Gatorade. The attempts were all based on "intuition and gut feeling," Ramirez said.
In fact, kickers in particular have a penchant for messing with the ball in an attempt to make the ball softer and rounder -- more like a soccer ball, which can be kicked farther. So the NFL instituted a ball in the late 1990's called the K ball with a smoother surface than the game ball to prevent tampering.
"It's locked in a vault somewhere, and it comes out only for kicks," Ramirez said. "I could imagine that some kicker was at a stadium and looked around and said, what's available to me? Maybe a few tools, the concession stand has lemonade, etc. I don't think it was highly scientific. But, if it does soften the ball, that could make the skin of the ball more pliable or flexible.
"And if you're a kicker, the game is all about increasing the contact area of your foot on the ball. If your foot has more contact with the ball, the momentum from your leg is transferred to the ball better, making it fly higher and further."
It's also easier to handle in certain conditions.
"The football has this very strange shape -- a prolate spheroid, like a lemon or a watermelon -- which is a wonderful shape for throwing because your hand can wrap around it," Ramirez said. "But on a really rainy day like the football game a couple of days ago, it's easier to catch and hold onto when it's less inflated."
Especially if you have smaller hands, said Joey Held, a freelance NFL writer who has officiated football games at various levels.
"I have really big hands, and I can catch one-handed, but if you have smaller hands and it's rainier, it hits your hands like a rock," he said. "So if it's at all deflated, it helps so much to be able to squeeze it. Ever for running backs, it's easier to hang onto the ball. It's nice to have that little extra grip."
Patriots coach Bill Belichick denies any knowledge of anyone tampering with the balls, putting the NFL in the position of deciding if there was any wrongdoing in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl. Fortunately for the league, few think deflated balls would have altered the game in question. As Colts tight end Dwayne Allen tweeted: "They could have played with soap for balls and beat us. Simply the better team..."
"I don't think it had an impact on this game at all, but it's good to look into it," Held said. "In the Patriots' prior game, they won by 4 points, so if it had been going on in that game... it's good they're investigating it for sure."
Similar issues could be avoided in the future, Ramirez said, if the league were able to scientifically monitor every ball. Using a sensor similar to what's found in the tires of some high-end cars that measures air pressure, you could monitor the pressure at all times, she said.
"It wouldn't be too difficult to put a small device into a ball," she said. "The monitor could be the size of a pencil eraser, plus a battery and a little antenna the size of a pencil to send information."
That might work better than the current system, which includes a punishment of a $25,000 fine for tampering with balls -- pennies, in NFL terms.
"Breaking the rules in a game costs less than not wearing the right hat," Held noted.