Should we care whether the New England Patriots broke the rules of the National Football League by slightly deflating the balls used in Sunday’s playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts?
Few serious football fans outside of Indiana could possibly imagine that the Colts, who lost by 38 points, would otherwise have been competitive. Non-fans are probably scratching their heads, trying to figure out what all the fuss is about.
The league has apparently found that 11 of the 12 game balls kept in the custody of the home team were underinflated. The main virtue of underinflation is that it helps in gripping a ball that is wet, or if you happen to have small hands. Now, I don’t pretend to know whether New England is guilty or not. (Coach Bill Belichick said he was shocked at the allegations.) But let me suggest a pretty simple reason that non-fans should care, and then let me suggest two more reasons that fans should care.
Non-fans should care because the NFL is the most widely followed sport in the country. Its broadcasts outdraw almost everything else on television. The game in question was, by a gigantic margin, the most viewed event on television that week. Just as when Major League Baseball went through its steroid crisis, it matters in the character formation of the young whether we ignore or even celebrate cheating.
Fans should care because it matters whether the champion cheats. That’s one reason that the NCAA takes away victories from teams that use ineligible players or in other ways break the rules. And fans should also care because the NFL in recent years seems to have left its integrity on a private jet somewhere, and has had trouble tracking it down. To say that the league has been neither good nor efficient at handling disciplinary matters is an understatement. And the league itself has not been terribly forthcoming on, for example, the issue of concussion injuries.
Of course it’s true that the Patriots would have won the game handily no matter what the pressure in the footballs. But as the estimable sportswriter William Rhoden correctly notes, the outcome is irrelevant: “That point of view misses the larger point – whether New England, the pre-eminent NFL team of the last 15 years, went into the game intending to cheat.”
Indeed. It’s comfortable for us to tell ourselves that sensible people don’t cheat when they know they’re going to win. But not everybody is sensible. The Watergate crimes continued well beyond the time when it was considered plausible that the Democrats might unseat Richard Nixon. (Edmund Muskie, the candidate Nixon feared most, was long out of the race by June, when the burglary was discovered.)
One recalls Judge Richard Posner’s observation that we seem to view plagiarism committed by successful authors as “a chump’s crime, less likely to reflect a serious larcenous intent than a loose screw.” He adds: “The more successful the writer, the more nutty-seeming the plagiarism.”
But not all cheating is nutty, even when you’re confident. There are those who by constitution and character will continue to press, seeking every possible edge. It never made sense that Dennis Kozlowski and Mark Swartz, both more than handsomely compensated, would loot Tyco to the tune of some $150 million, but the jurors convicted them of doing just that. Sometimes you do it because you can get away with it.
Part of the problem is that we have been down this road before. We know that the Patriots seek every edge. They find subtle ideas in the rule book that nobody else seems to figure out. And they’ve broken the rules, too. The league mysteriously destroyed all the evidence from the Spygate scandal, when the team was found to have used cameras to try to observe their opponents’ hand signals, but the memories of fans are long.
So are the memories of non-fans. I am willing to bet that there are plenty of people out there who couldn’t care less about football, but whose first impression on hearing the story was something along this line: “Oh, the Patriots, right, I’ve heard of them. Haven’t they been caught cheating before?”
That’s a terrible legacy for one of the greatest teams and greatest coaches in the history of the league. But it’s exactly the sort of baggage that professional football will carry as long as it keeps taking issues of integrity as lightly as it does.
Rhoden’s suggestion is that if the Patriots are guilty, Belichick should be suspended for the Super Bowl. I doubt that a full and fair investigation could be completed by then, but the NFL has shown that it can work quickly when it wants to.
Sometimes – in this case perhaps correctly – the league also gives the wins back. In admiring the felicity of Posner’s language, I am not endorsing his comments about particular individuals.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.