The question at the heart of Deflategate - the one that got lost as appeal became stacked on top of appeal, in turn making the controversy all the more ridiculous - was why deflating football was even a big deal in the first place. After all, Lane Kiffin was caught doing the same thing at USC a few years ago and barely anyone cared. So why is this suddenly an assault on the very foundation of the NFL?
As Don Van Natta, Jr., and Seth Wickersham detail in an exhaustive report for ESPN, Deflategate wasn't really about Deflategate. They indicate commissioner Roger Goodell was so hellbent on nailing the Pats for deflated footballs because their behavior ran well beyond deflated footballs for a long time.
In fact, many former New England coaches and employees insist that the taping of signals wasn’t even the most effective cheating method the Patriots deployed in that era. Several of them acknowledge that during pregame warm-ups, a low-level Patriots employee would sneak into the visiting locker room and steal the play sheet, listing the first 20 or so scripted calls for the opposing team’s offense. (The practice became so notorious that some coaches put out fake play sheets for the Patriots to swipe.) Numerous former employees say the Patriots would have someone rummage through the visiting team hotel for playbooks or scouting reports.
Stealing signals is gamesmanship, breaking in and stealing another team's actual property is theft.