The decision by the NFL investigators that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady “probably” cheated is a line-straddling concession similar to a civil court case in which the criteria is that the issue at hand “more likely than not” occurred. They don’t have proof beyond a reasonable doubt, so Brady still has plausible deniability even though he seems to have lied when he said he had nothing to do with the amount of air in the footballs for the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts.
The important question isn’t whether or not he did it and if his legacy and the fourth Super Bowl he and the Patriots just won is tarnished. Nor is it whether or not he’s guilty. The important question is whether or not this is a scandal compromising the game’s competitiveness or an integral part of the game.
Cheating in sports has always been a nuanced and indefinable. Some believe that all is fair. It’s fine if there’s a certain of cheating going on as long as no one’s life is put at risk because of it and the integrity of the competition isn’t compromised by an intentional attempt to lose. If gamesmanship occurs, it’s generally perceived as acceptable in the context of professional competition. Most sports aren’t combat-related where an incident such as what happened between Luis Resto and his trainer Panama Lewis as padding was removed from Resto’s gloves and he battered Billy Collins, Jr. Lewis and Resto went to jail and Collins spiraled downward until he committed suicide. Resto later admitted that not only were the gloves tampered with, but his hand wraps were soaked in Plaster of Paris. That was criminality, not competitive gamesmanship. There’s a certain level of trust that competitors won’t go as far as Resto and Lewis did and cause severe injury even in a sport like boxing where injury is the defined intent. Although it’s a violent sport, Resto and Lewis went beyond negligible propriety of head butts, elbows and other acts that are generally accepted as part of the terrain in boxing.
Where does that put football, baseball and other sports? Is there a line between Brady (probably) having had the footballs deflated and a clever offensive lineman holding on every single play and getting away with it? What about in baseball were little tricks are used in every game – most of which are not within the confines of the rules – to gain an advantage? Gaylord Perry wrote a book called, “Me and the Spitter” based on his reliance of a career-saving spitball. He’s in the Hall of Fame. Don Drysdale pitched 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in 1968 and it was only stopped when he was caught and warned without being sanctioned for throwing a spitball. Mike Scott salvaged a dying career with a scuffball. No one cared. It was shrugged off.
In some cases, the league itself takes part in the “cheating” by allowing it to go on or tacitly encouraging it for the greater good. Major League Baseball easily falls into this category with the performance enhancing drug explosion. To imply that no one in MLB’s regulatory body was aware that players were not having a career renaissance based on hard work is the combination of naïve and idiotic.
In football, Brady’s success is part of the problem with this latest scandal. If it was discovered that Jay Cutler had a certain, rule-bending way he wanted his footballs prepared, he’d be the target of ridicule on talk radio, social media, mainstream media and in bars. “Heh, heh, heh. Better figure out a new way to keep your balls so they don’t end up in the hands of the other team, Jay. Heh, heh, heh.”
But it’s not a player who’s viewed as a sad sack loser like Cutler. It’s Brady. The winningest of the winners. The guy who married perhaps the most famous supermodel in the world. The guy who has the life many aspire to and didn’t have it handed to him as the first overall pick in the draft, anointed since birth. He was an afterthought sixth round draft pick who worked, studied, trained and made himself into one of the best quarterbacks in history.
The idea is that this taints Brady’s career in an exponential way because it’s not the first time that there have been allegations and proof of chicanery on the part of the Bill Belichick/Brady Patriots. Given the times they’ve been caught, logic dictates that there are probably twenty other incidents in which they’ve bent or outright broken the rules and gotten away with it. Back to the Cutler analogy, is it because the Patriots cheat more than other teams or is it because they’re simply better at football? This is in line with the PED use in baseball. Barry Bonds broke records and had the best years of his career at a time when he should have been in steady decline based on age and physical breakdown. Obviously, it was because of the drugs. But he was also better than the other players who were also using the same drugs. Doesn’t that, in a bizarre way, level the playing field back to how it was when everyone was clean?
Belichick and owner Bob Kraft have not been implicated in “deflategate.” Who knows whether or not either were aware of this? It’s doubtful that Kraft is so involved in the micromanagement of his team that he’d be aware of it, especially when he’s got someone so competent as Belichick as his football CEO. As for Belichick, it appears to be an intentional, “I can always say I didn’t know if I really didn’t know, but kinda knew” method of management that is far more common in successful companies that most are willing to admit.
Belichick’s managerial style is like that of any all-powerful dictator. The leader in a sustained dictatorship has a method with his generals and subordinates: if it works, great; if it doesn’t, you take the fall. Naturally, that won’t apply to Brady while he’s still of use to Belichick. But there will be others tossed overboard because they’re disposable. After all their years together and the amount of trust that Belichick puts in Brady as the conduit from the coach’s brain to the on-field game plan implementation, the quarterback presumably has autonomy to do whatever he needs to do including certain activities that push the envelope of the rules.
To settle the issue of how much the football is to be inflated and to satisfy the public, expect there to be a boxing-style pregame check by representatives of the opposing team similar to a boxer’s gloves being examined and marked. There will either be a range in which the balls can be inflated and deflated or the NFL will simply say, these are the balls; this is how much they’re inflated; deal with it. Brady will probably be fined heavily and suspended for a game or two. That will be it.
The NFL allowed this to happen. Do you believe the NFL became the powerful entity it is by following all the rules? They had their players as indentured servants until 25 years ago when nominal free agency came into being. Apart from the public image and financial ramifications, they still don’t really care about the players’ physical, emotional and mental condition in the aftermath of their careers as they’re addicted to painkillers, unable to walk and are wandering around with brain damage and no money to pay for treatment.
The NFL itself is very effective at theoretically promoting one code of conduct to satisfy its customers and quiet the media while bowing to expediency in practice. Like the domestic violence issue in which the NFL only took steps to dispense punishments that are deemed appropriate after a video of Ray Rice knocking his then-fiancée unconscious surfaced and they spun their own tale similar to Brady’s that they didn’t know anything about anything, they acted when they had no other choice. It was a business decision, not because it’s the right thing to do.
If Roger Goodell and the NFL are worried about this latest issue with the Patriots, it’s only because they want the fans to believe that the sport is on the up-and-up; that gamblers (who the sport won’t acknowledge either) are wagering fairly; and that the business dictates they act.
The United States didn’t become the world power it is by following rules that hinder achieving that end. The NFL sells itself as an American institution. Tom Brady is considered the All-American boy. They sure are. The underlying reality might not be the conveniently salable storyline, but it doesn’t make it any less true.