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Thursday, November 2, 2017

Documentary film critically examines 'Deflategate,' exposes science-for-hire industry, Big Sport marketing machine

At UMass Law School, from left to right: yours truly, sporting a Brady kit gifted by my Torts students, night class of 2018; author, commentator, and comedian Jerry Thornton, former NFL employee Scott Miller; Lemon Martini producer and UMass Law alumna Ami Clifford; and Julie Marron, acclaimed director of Happygram and Four Games in Fall.

The UMass Law School community had a special treat of an event last week: an invitation-only, friends-and-family pre-screening of the director’s cut of the forthcoming documentary, Four Games in Fall, from director Julie Marron and Lemon Martini Productions.  See the film’s home page and trailer here, or the trailer below.  The film is in essence a documentary about “Deflategate,” the 2015 scandal in the National Football League in which New England Patriots Quarterback Tom Brady was accused of orchestrating the under-inflation of footballs to rig games in his favor in the Patriots charge to Superbowl victory.

UMass Law alumna Ami Clifford is a producer of Four Games in Fall, putting her legal education to creative use making—as the tagline for Lemon Martini puts it—“social justice documentaries with a twist.”  Marron is an acclaimed Massachusetts director fresh off the roaring success of her 2015 documentary about mammograms and breast cancer, Happygram.  For a Q&A after the screening, Marron and Clifford were joined by documentary interviewees: Scott Miller, a New Yorker and former NFL employee; Jerry Thornton, WEEI radio personality and author of From Darkness to Dynasty: The First 40 Years of the New England Patriots; and Andrew E. Wilson, a marketing and management professor at St. Mary’s College of California.

Four Games in Fall did not disappoint.  Marron and Clifford explained in the Q&A that neither one of them had more than a passing interest in the NFL and the Patriots when they set out to make the documentary.  But they were attracted to exactly that aspect of the Deflategate scandal: that so many people without a vested interest in Patriots football, with nothing to gain by sticking their necks out, seemed to be taking an interest in the case.  Roughly as Clifford said it, when a lot of very smart people in the sciences, with at best ordinary interest in American football, started looking at the Deflategate case and the penalties exacted against Brady, and saying “something smells here,” she and Marron started paying attention.  They had no agenda, but Four Games in Fall definitely raises red flags—or, I guess, throws yellow ones—on what seems to be NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s hell-bent persecution of star-athlete and national celebrity Brady and football’s Superbowl-winningest team.

Therein lies the subtle brilliance of Four Games in Fall, which takes full advantage of the documentary format not only to examine Deflategate on its facts and merits, but to place the affair in a critical context from social, commercial, scientific, and legal perspectives.  Reminiscent of Morgan Spurlock’s classic Super Size Me, Four Games features Professor Wilson to explain marketing phenomena such as “anchoring” and “confirmation bias.”  Those concepts help to explain why the conventional wisdom about what actually happened in Deflategate runs so contrary to the facts.  Following the dollar, Marron furthermore examines the enormous market power of the NFL, which amplifies its messaging and suppresses contrary views from the audience and the players’ union.  In this vein, the film brings in the NFL’s reluctant engagement with the mounting evidence of CTE injury and critically exposes the "science for hire" industry.  Meanwhile, science--the real stuff--reveals the startling imprecision behind NFL rules such as ball-inflation standards.  Those standards are so faulty as not to account for on-field temperature in a sport played in late autumn and early winter.

Against this backdrop, Brady’s case winds through the courts, where yet another story unfolds: the un-level playing field of pervasive arbitration agreements, affecting even NFL players, and the Second Circuit’s judicial-typical capitulation to boilerplate contract at the arguable expense of fundamental fairness.  Brady dropped his case before trying to press on to the U.S. Supreme Court, disappointing many observers, including, at that time, he confessed, Thornton.   But the film and the panelists explained a number of reasons why it made no sense to continue.  Brady’s mother was diagnosed with cancer, which did not bolster the QB’s will to litigate.  Yet just as importantly, Brady’s legal team must have realized that its case, implicating NFL players and their union in opposition to the enormous power of the NFL, was sui generis.  It did not make for the kind of broad-implication inquiry that the Supreme Court would likely want to see before exercising discretionary review.  In truth, the many NFL players who are not stars do face physical hardships out of proportion to their remuneration and job security, just like an average factory Joe.  At the same time, NFL players are not Willy Loman, and the NFL is not--quite--E Corp.

Nevertheless, Deflategate, informed by Four Games in Fall, leaves a bad taste in the mouth.  We do, as Americans, seek to identify personally with our sporting heroes, however aspirational the comparison.  Tom Brady’s retiring temperament (supermodel spouse notwithstanding) and boyish charm have the feel of an underdog American David who took on the NFL corporate Goliath and lost.  Whether one agrees or not with the physical and social scientists who populate the frames of Four Games in Fall, it’s hard to conclude on the legal end that Brady and the Patriots got a fair shake.  And with so many of us worker bees—tied up in arbitration contracts we did not meaningfully agree to and don’t really want, beholden to the disproportionate and opaque oligopolistic power of mammoth corporations for just about everything we do, including our employment and especially lately our healthcare—Brady’s loss unexpectedly hits home with all the punch of a 300-pound offensive tackle.

Our hero should have vanquished Goliath and failed.  If Tom Brady can’t beat the monster, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Four Games in Fall is setting off soon for the festival circuit and will come to consumers through one media channel or another shortly thereafter.  See it.  You don’t have to be a fan of American football; I’m not.  This film is about so much more.

 Four Games in Fall trailer.

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