To Air on the Side of Caution

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on January 24, 2015.

In what was far from a banner year, the NFL found itself wrapped up in another controversy just weeks before the biggest sporting event of the year. Instead of previewing the Super Bowl Matchup between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL is addressing one of the stranger stories of the year: whether or not the Patriots intentionally deflated the footballs below league regulations during their AFC Championship matchup with the Indianapolis Colts.

First, the disclosures:

1. At this time, there is no definite proof that the Patriots were involved in any intentional wrongdoing. Tom Brady and Bill Belichick have spoken out publicly against the accusations.

2. The NFL is continuing to investigate the matter, including many interviews with team personnel.

3. I am not suggesting that the outcome of the game was determined by anything that did or did not happen to the footballs that were previously inspected. Whether the game was played with footballs of 15 ounces, 5 ounces, or a punctured soccer ball, the Patriots may very well have won the game anyway. That is not the point.

What is far more important is the fact that once again the integrity of the game is called in question. It’s not about this specific case that the footballs were a little underinflated for a game in cold conditions. Rather, 11 out of the 12 footballs specifically provided by the Patriots failed to meet the NFL’s guidelines. And if done so intentionally, this would represent a willful and purposeful attempt to subvert a known rule and gain an advantage over an opponent. In other words, cheating.

What would we say if an NBA team decided to repaint their home floor and move the 3-point line back a few inches? (The correct answer, by the way, is that this is also cheating).

“But both teams were shooting from behind the same arc!” It doesn’t matter.

“Other teams could do the same thing on their home court!” It’s still against the rules.

“The team won by 50 points anyway and 3-point shooting wasn’t a factor in the game!” Who cares? The score doesn’t change anything. The rule was broken before the game started.

Yes, Andrew Luck had to throw the same football on Sunday. There may be other teams that have also tried to change the air pressure of the footballs at one point or another. The Colts lost 45-7 last week, so maybe the outcome of the game was more about their inability to run the football. All of those statements may be true, but really aren’t the real problem.

The issue here is not about this one game or the physics of aerodynamics and projectile motion. It is the fact that if the Patriots did indeed manipulate the footballs, knowing full well that it was against the rules, then they are challenging the integrity of the game against the golden rule of sports that fans are accustomed to expect: games are decided on an even playing field, fair and square. An different football may not have made a difference in this game, but it contributes to the idea that teams can bend the rules to get ahead, knowing that (if they are even caught) they will get away with a slap-on-the-wrist penalty and still get to play for a Super Bowl. If this type of transgression is overlooked, then teams can try to craft hidden advantages, before falling back on the excuse that “it didn’t affect the outcome of one game.” But what about the outcome on the sport as a whole, when it contributes to the notion that the way to the top is by circumventing the rules. Games should be won on the field, not behind the scenes. A team that cheats to get ahead shouldn’t be able to justify it by saying, “Well thank goodness we won by 30 points, I guess would have won anyway.” Such dishonesty wrecks the very foundation of sports, not to mention setting a terrible example for the numerous young athletes that strive to work hard every day. You don’t break a rule to get ahead, and then play the “game” of trying not to get caught.

The investigation may end with the verdict that the Patriots in fact did not do anything wrong. Hopefully, they did not, and the case of the deflated footballs will thus remain a mystery. But if they intentionally tried to illegally gain an advantage by knowingly violating this rule, then they are just as guilty as the coach that subs in an ineligible teammate, or the player whose equipment isn’t quite within regulations. And they will have to account for their actions and accept the punishment. If we let this one slide, then the benefits of cheating might begin to outweigh the risks. That’s why this matters; not because of the game score, because of the game.

Besides, the league should’ve have known something was up with the footballs right away. Come on, Adam Vinatieri, missing a postseason field goal? The weight of the football isn’t the issue. The weight of the issue, however, is.  AN

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