On May 14, 2015

When “cheating” becomes cheating … or not

Where does Tom Brady rank within the annals of sports cheaters?

On May 6, the NFL’s 243-page “Wells Report” implicated Brady in January’s “Deflategate” scandal, wherein the Indianapolis Colts accused the New England Patriots of using underinflated footballs—in violation of the league’s p.s.i. requirements—during their AFC Championship victory. Now, the official word is that, yes, it seems the Patriots (of “Spygate” fame) did it on purpose, and additionally, it is “more probable than not” that Tom Brady himself was aware of the “inappropriate activities.”

Well, duh. Since there’s no objectively superior p.s.i.-level for a football (some quarterbacks prefer an overinflated ball, while others prefer a softer, smaller ball—it’s just a matter of preference), there’s absolutely no reason to alter the air pressure in a football except at the behest of the guy who’ll be throwing it. NFL quarterbacks are famously particular about the balls they use on game day, and from Foxborough-based text-message exchanges contained within the “Wells Report,” one can tell Brady is no exception. (The report also puts forth evidence of a pregame bribe, as well as a number of suspicious, post-scandal phone calls between Brady and the equipment assistant who likely perpetrated the deed.)

As we evaluate the import of this development, we should recall that the rule Brady disobeyed was a minor one that countless NFL teams have surely violated without consequence, knowingly or unknowingly. The rule is an anachronism; it shouldn’t exist. The NFL has in recent years done virtually all it can to promote its exciting and popular passing game, and if there were, by consensus, one optimal setting for the throwing and catching of footballs, that setting would probably become standard. It’s because different quarterbacks have different predilections that every game ball is different—retrieved from a precious personal stash—and because the NFL has created a range of acceptable p.s.i. readings, instead of issuing a single, inflexibly regulated ball for each game. We accept game-ball “personalization” as a good thing—to a certain arbitrary point.

But if the goal is to allow the athletes to perform to the best of their abilities (which is why, in 2006, we allowed quarterbacks to begin supplying their own game balls), we should remove the restrictions altogether. Let each quarterback do whatever he wants to his own ball—we already allow Eli Manning to subject his game balls to a months-long process of scrubbing, scouring, soaking, and seasoning, according to a completely uncontroversial New York Times article from 2013. If everyone can do as he likes, no principle of competitive equality is violated, and the game is improved.

Yet, whether the current rule makes logical sense or not, it is a rule, and if we assume that some teams follow it to the detriment of their passing game, then Tom Brady did violate the principle of competitive equality by breaking it.

The other (more general) thing to remember is that every athlete has cheated in sports at some point.

Imagine this: you’re an NFL running back—it’s the fourth quarter, and your team is losing by six. With seconds left on the clock, you receive a handoff and sprint down the sideline for a game-winning touchdown. During the run, your right cleat steps out of bounds for a fraction of a second, but the referee doesn’t notice. Your team has now won the game because of your heroic score. Do you tell the referee that, if he closely examines the replay, he’ll realize that the touchdown actually was invalid? Or do you rationalize that it’s the ref’s job to notice these things and, if he doesn’t, that’s his problem?

To me, the most obvious way of figuring out the seriousness—the severity, the “badness”—of a particular case of cheating is to determine the extent to which the game might have been different if both teams had played fairly. By this standard, the abovementioned hypothetical example is a case of “serious cheating” (as it completely changed the outcome of the hypothetical game), and Deflategate was a non-event: the Patriots beat the Colts 45-7, and to do so they had to dominate their opponent in a hundred ways that had nothing to do with the ball’s p.s.i.—which may have created some advantage, but not enough to explain a 38-point difference in an otherwise correctly played game.

Yet Deflategate is a big deal, and the crux of the issue is not effect but premeditation: the hypothetical running back who stepped out of bounds had no intent to deceive anyone before the ball was snapped. In general, we are far more accepting of spontaneous, heat-of-the-moment, in-game cheating than we are of planned-out, behind-the-scenes cheating, even if the former creates a more demonstrable advantage. When an old-school dirty player like Reggie Miller pulled or pushed a defender while the ref’s back was turned, he was “doing whatever he could to help his team.” Even Gaylord Perry’s spitballs are a celebrated part of baseball lore.

In the case of Lance Armstrong, it was his fault for doping, not the UCI officials’ fault for failing to detect it. In the case of Diego Maradona and the 1986 World Cup, however, it was the officials’ fault for failing to notice the handball more than it was Maradona’s fault for committing it.

If we are not to be offended, the cheating must be an illegal “athletic move,” not an organizational conspiracy—i.e., it must be the type of cheating of which we’ve all occasionally partaken in the schoolyard or the backyard, not the advanced, coordinated scheme of professionals. Today, Maradona is considered an all-time soccer great; Armstrong is a scumbag.

Which one is Tom Brady? Both Deflategate and Spygate (for which Bill Belichick was blamed, though Brady knew and benefited) were “the wrong kind of cheating.” In neither case was the broken rule a particularly cherished or important one; in neither case can we prove that the Patriots wouldn’t have won without cheating. Yet both situations were premeditated and, thus, “feel wrong.”

Sorry, Tom.

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