Here’s a quick quiz: What do we really know about the “Deflategate” controversy that rocked the New England Patriots for a week?

It turns out we don’t know much at all. We think the Patriots played with underinflated footballs in their blowout win against the Indianapolis Colts. Maybe 11 of their 12 balls were underinflated by 2 pounds per square inch. And it’s been reported that security cameras show a Patriots equipment manager taking the balls into a private room.

It turns out most of those facts aren’t facts at all. What they are is the direct result of anonymous leaks, delivered without a shred of evidence, most of which have been “corrected” since then. The accusations, of course, were headlines. The corrections are buried.

The Deflategate story that exploded onto the national news two weeks ago was the product of a series of leaks to NFL-friendly sports reporters, by someone close to the NFL. One leak conveniently went to each of the four networks associated with the league, and they came in a cascade that made responses impossible.

The Patriots were forced to respond to those leaks in an effort to prove their innocence, while being effectively tried and convicted in the court of public opinion.

I’m not saying that the Patriots are innocent or guilty, because none of us knows. I’m saying that the rush to judgment should, in this case and any other, await the arrival of evidence.

The Patriots deserved what we all deserve, which is to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. They didn’t get that. Instead of their day in court, they got a week in the court of public opinion, prosecuted by anonymous leakers. Instead of evidence, they got rumors.

If the Patriots intentionally altered the balls, the penalties will and should be swift. But before we drag out the dusty guillotines, let’s remember why the NFL views poorly inflated footballs as worthy of a $25,000 fine (that’s nothing for the NFL – it would be a bottle deposit to you and me). It never mattered much.

The NFL’s handling of Deflategate and the media frenzy it generated are destined to be part of a significant case study in both journalism and law schools over the next few years, and it should. Once it finally plays itself out, the “scandal” will offer a perfect illustration of the dangerous power of hyped-up accusations and breathless headlines generated without evidence.

It will also remind us of how easy it has become to destroy the reputations of organizations and individuals through leaks, whether or not real evidence is later provided.

In the new world of instantaneous, wall-to-wall media, lawyers and prosecutors have been learning how to try their cases in the press, where accusations make headlines and the rules of evidence are far weaker than in a courtroom. We can see that playing out in almost every high-profile trial now, and especially in cases involving race, celebrities and utterly powerless individuals.

Over the past few decades, the 24-hour entertainment-media industry has continually lowered its standards of proof and, in some cases, obliterated them altogether. Rather than skeptically questioning why information is being leaked – and whether it’s accurate – hordes of reporters now trample each other to get their leak out first, with their name on it.

This is part of a larger struggle to define journalism today, which pits shock radio and the paparazzi on one side and the heirs of Walter Cronkite on the other. With Deflategate, the bottom-feeders ruled the day.

I’m not pretending to be a neutral observer on this case. I’ve watched Tom Brady grow up before my eyes, over 15 years. When he was asked at a news conference if he was a cheater, he seemed more hurt by the question than anything else. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’d never cheat at anything.” No legal bluster. No angry defense. Just an honest response.

Watching that scene first saddened me, then left me furious. Perhaps I’m not cynical enough, but that guy is as believable as anyone in public life.

The vitriol hurled at Brady during the ensuing days was astonishing. People rushed past questions of guilt to what the punishment should be. Instant experts multiplied like mold. Instead of questioning the facts, the country went straight into lynch mob mode, calling for a real good hangin’.

I kept looking for the honest sheriff in this Western to stand up and stare down the mob, reminding them that in this country, everyone’s entitled to a fair trial, and these folks are going to get it. I’m still waiting.

Alan Caron is a partner in the strategic consulting firm of Caron and Egan. He can be contacted at:

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