If you can’t beat ’em…

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on June 6, 2015.

…join ’em? Everett Golson will compete for the starting QB job with the Florida State Seminoles in 2015 after playing two up-and-down seasons with the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. After dazzling in the previous year’s Blue and Gold spring game, Golson emerged as the starter for a Notre Dame team looking to turn the corner on back-to-back 8-5 seasons (and of course the infamous 3-9 in 2007). Bringing a dual-threat package that electrifies college football today, Everett Golson rejuvenated the Irish fan base with his strong arm and nimble footwork. Despite some close games at the beginning of the season, a victory over Michigan and overtime goal-line stand to defeat Stanford suddenly put Notre Dame on the national radar. The top-10 matchup against Oklahoma proved their mettle; the triple overtime game against Pittsburgh nearly ended in heartbreak; yet by the time Thanksgiving weekend rolled around, their last victory over rival USC capped off an undefeated regular season and a spot in the national championship game.

Months later, the terrible news spread around campus that Everett Golson, the hero of Notre Dame’s magical season, would be dismissed from the school and sitting out for Notre Dame’s 2013 campaign. Instead, the Irish fortune relied on the arm of the often-polarizing senior Tommy Rees, who put together a more-than-respectable 9-4 season, including a victory over Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl. Everett Golson returned in 2014 amid the always high expectations from the Notre Dame fan base. After a year of workouts and self-professed personal growth, Golson was readmitted to Notre Dame and primed to return Notre Dame to the championship hunt. The Irish raced to a 6-0 record to open the season, setting up the primetime matchup with Florida State, both schools hoping to be in the top 4 in the inaugural year of the College Football Playoff. A close game throughout, Notre Dame was poised to hand the Seminoles their first loss in two seasons, and jump into the top-5. With seconds ticking away, the game-winning touchdown turned offensive pass interference shattered the dreams of Irish fans around the country (not to mention everyone else rooting against Florida State). The Seminoles once again dodged a near defeat, and Florida State would complete a second straight undefeated regular season and a berth in the playoff. Notre Dame, however, would follow a different path.

It was the flag that turned a season. Notre Dame closed out the year with four straight losses, complete with interceptions, injuries, and poor late-game execution. Golson struggled with turnovers through the second half of the season, hindering Notre Dame’s offense as they stumbled into the Music City Bowl (for which they would not have even been eligible if not for the early start to the season). Golson’s late-season trouble wore Coach Kelly’s patience thinly, so instead Malik Zaire started in the bowl game, a surprising victory over LSU. Golson, who did also play in the bowl game, was clearly the second choice, his starting job for next season now in jeopardy in the wake of the other dual threat quarterback in Zaire.

This season, Everett Golson will suit up for the Florida State Seminoles, the same team that he nearly knocked off the previous October. Ironically, had the final touchdown stood, a Notre Dame victory would have pushed them to 7-0 and a top 5 ranking. They may very well have carried the momentum through the end of the season and into title contention. Golson may have played better, kept his starting job, and never even considered transferring after all. Instead, the hero of the 12-0 season has now left South Bend for the second time. But now it’s different. He has officially graduated from Notre Dame, so he will be able to play without sitting out a season.

Everett Golson may not end up as an NFL starter; his time at ND is done, but he still has to win the starting job at FSU. He is still a great college football player, with one more year of eligibility and an opportunity that any number of high school standouts would love to have. Certainly he would have still been a valuable member of the Notre Dame team, and Brian Kelly would love to have the “problem” of choosing a starter from the two great QBs. But Golson also may have been stuck on the sideline watching the Irish play on without him. Golson has already had to watch an Irish season from afar. And his ND career has been anything but routine. He’s played in a national championship game; he’s been expelled for “poor academic judgment.” He’s led game winning drives and he’s forced a few too many turnovers. When he was suspended from Notre Dame, he easily could have left the school for good, but he chose to return to ND and take the field once again. He won some big games, lost some others. Now he is once again at a crossroads, and this time on his own terms. Golson has one more chance to play football on the national stage. And this time, he’s leaving with something far more valuable than game film for pro scouts or a championship ring: a degree from one of the best universities in the country. Now he just wants to play football. He’s paid his dues, and now he has once more chance on the field. Save the debate over the graduate transfer rule. Stop counting his interceptions or predicting what he will be able to contribute next year. Just let the kid play.

Meanwhile, at Notre Dame, the Malik Zaire era officially has begun.  AN

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A new era in the Bronx

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on April 5, 2015.

After a long winter, America’s pastime returns with hot dogs, mown grass, and “Take me out to the ballgame.” One team is trying to defend a championship and 29 others are hoping to steal it away. Spring training now in the rear-view mirror, the teams take the field to see how the offseason training and roster moves will pan out. For the New York Yankees, this year’s Opening Day begins not just a new season, but the start of a new era. Once the dominant dynasty of the late nineties, the Yankees are now just trying to stay competitive with the league’s upper-tier. Four championships between 1996-2000 seems like ages ago. AL Pennants in 2001 and 2003 (and very nearly another in 2004) continued a remarkable run for the Bronx bombers. Another championship in 2009 was the 5th for the “Core Four,” this time with some help from a few new faces.

But like all sports careers, eventually the toughest opponent is time. Veterans retired and rosters changed. New players arrived, and others left. By the the the 2009 trophy was hoisted, only 4 were left from the golden era. Then Jorge Posada, one of the most popular players on the Yankees, hung up the cleats after 17 seasons, and suddenly the Core Four became the Key Three. Andy Pettitte, who had returned from Houston and solidified his reputation has one of the best postseason pitchers, was next to retire (for the second time, that is). Mariano Rivera also bowed out in 2013. After recovering from knee surgery, he ended a fantastic final season, retiring the number 42 for good upon his departure. Then it was the Captain’s turn, as Derek Jeter stood fittingly as the last vestige of the Yankees’ former dynasty. Derek Jeter’s climb up the career hits record list was one of the few highlights of his farewell season, which ended with the Yankees on the wrong side of the wild card chase. With his retirement, the Yankees not only said goodbye to their most beloved player in recent history, they finally saw the sun set on the glory days of era that was almost good to be true.

Now the Yankees are a team searching for a new identity. While they’re at it, they would do well to search for some young talent and a way to keep their roster healthy for a full season. Only 4 players remain on the roster from their last World Series championship. Their promising star in Robinson Cano is now in Seattle. Alex Rodriguez has been the story of the off-season, but not exactly for his production on the field. Sabathia is no longer the dominant top-rotation starter he once was; Tanaka and Pineda are coming back from injuries. The bullpen is solid, as has been for a while, but they will need quality starting pitching to keep them competitive into the late innings. A-Rod may end up with more headlines than home runs, and most of the hitters in their lineup are aging, injury-prone or both. Brett Gardner and Didi Gregorius are the young bats in town, but the Yankees will need production from Mark Teixeria, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carlos Beltran to give them a lift. Best case scenario: they stay healthy enough to remain in striking distance of a wild card spot. Worse case: well, let’s just say there isn’t exactly a wide margin for error.

And through it all, the Yankees still have the most passionate fans who proudly don the pinstripes and file into the Bronx to watch one of the most storied franchises in professional sports. A history of success doesn’t guarantee future dividends, but it certainly maintains high expectations. All reigns eventually come to an end; and after two decades, the Yankees (whether they wanted it or not) have a fresh start. After all, that’s part of the pageantry of Opening Day: the beginning of a new journey, and waiting to see where it leads. It’s fun to reminisce about the championship days, but the Yankees best not be looking backward for too long. Those times are firmly in the past, and they can only press onward. It’s a new era in the Bronx, and the Yankees have to build themselves back up, just like they did when they drafted a certain shortstop from Kalamazoo in 1992. They might as well start now.  AN

The beauty of the bracket

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 19, 2015.

On paper it just looks like a series of lines, arranged neatly in rows. Some are even connected. Then we add some words, some names of places, and a few numbers too. Eventually the blank spaces get filled in. The lines remind us who has to go where, and meet up with whom. It’s really just a way to keep an organized schedule of 67 games. But we know better. This isn’t just a list of basketball games, this is the chronicle of an unfolding saga not present in any other sport. This is the evolving account of dreams realized and hopes dashed, of stories that pervade beyond expectations and a few a that end just a bit too soon. This is no ordinary schedule; this is… The Bracket.

It doesn’t matter how you start. Fill out one, or fill out ten. Pick based on seed; pick based on momentum; or pick based on reputation. Watch hours of analysis on TV, or spend a few minutes scribbling names during your lunch break. Bet money, wager bragging rights, or prove once-and-for-all that you know more about sports than your roommate. Chances are the girl next door who picked mascots and team colors did better than both of you. This time of year smart phones are refreshed nearly every minute; office lunch breaks are suspiciously long; and we finally get a legitimate answer to the ever-rhetorical question of why it is actually practical to have multiple TV screens in your living room.

The preceding months have led to this: tip-off tournaments, early-season match-ups, and conference rivalries. 68 of the nation’s best teams now compete for college basketball’s top prize. Arenas across the country play host to any of the 67 games that whittle the field down in every round. Played over the course of 3 short weeks, March Madness sends sports into a flurry of competition and fandom. No waiting long between games; no best-of-7 series. Just win.

The “bracket” becomes one of the most recognizable pictures in March. “Bracketology” sounds like the next thing to major when in college. Joe Lunardi is on TV more than the the President. Cinderellas and “bracket busters” come to life. The bracket spreads to schools, offices, every form of media, and even all the way to the White House. At any point, a team can gain thousands of fans (or opponents, depending on who you picked). This is the bracket: a piece of paper (or picture on a screen) honored as a piece of history. And just like any other form of written information, since the beginning of time, the purpose is just that: to be a part of history. Look at a completed bracket from a previous year’s tournament, and a hundred stories jump to life. Take a look at the 2006 bracket, when all four #1 seeds failed to make the Final Four, and 11-seeded George Mason did. The final line of 2008 reads “Kansas defeats Memphis” although you probably remember Mario Chalmers’s completing the comeback to send game into overtime. That year might conjure up the vision of Davidson in the Elite 8, before a certain guard named Steph Curry was in the NBA. 2010 saw the Butler Bulldogs in their remarkable run to the title game (What if Gordon Hayward’s shot had gone in?), and VCU from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. Every year the tournament etches memories in ink for the bracket, and into to our minds for eternity. If you were watching the games, you can probably still vividly recall the buzzer-beaters that sent 13 and 14 seeded teams beyond the first round, Cornell or Harvard from the Ivy League upsetting favorites from major conferences, or Florida “Dunk City” Gulf Coast winning two games as a a 15-seed in 2013. From an endless array of possibilities, order and chaos seemingly blend with each line filled in. In a season where drama and disbelief are a near certainty, the bracket is our ever-faithful scribe that recounts each moment in time.

So when you fill out your bracket, you’re not in it for the money. It’s not just about the bragging rights or procrastinating at work. You’re recording history. The bracket takes the game from the far corners of the country, and pushes it onto center stage. Every game counts, every game matters. Whether you’ve been a basketball fan for 30 minutes or 30 years, everyone is cheering for someone. Follow your teams through to the end, or just rip it apart, and root for more madness. Everyone claims to predict the future, until we realize once again how futile an endeavor that is. Thousands of moments we don’t want to forget, become etched in history forever. That’s the madness of March. That’s the beauty of the bracket.  AN

Champ Week Magic

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on March 11, 2015.

Two years ago, I attended the 2013 Horizon League Tournament upon the recommendation of my college roommate, one of the biggest fans of college basketball that I have ever met. We made the short drive to Valparaiso, IN on a Friday night for two games in the quarterfinal round. Arriving to the campus of Valparaiso University on a quiet March afternoon, we found the basketball court in a gym that could have passed for a large high school, a far cry from the D-I arenas we were used to seeing.

As fans of the sport itself, we were excited to see any basketball game, and certainly a conference tournament. We got there early of course, but hadn’t needed to. The bleachers were empty enough that there were plenty of front-row seats even when the first game started. The game was between Youngstown State and Wright State. Youngstown State’s mascot is the penguin, so there were multiple fully-costumed penguins in attendance for the game. Of course we took pictures with them. We could hear nearly every play call and sound of the game, as if we were right next to the action (because we were). The student band section was fully into the game. For some time, they may have even outnumbered the fans. Needless to say, their cheers resonated during every opposing free throw, giving us some of the most creative (and not tasteless at all) cheers we couldn’t help but find humorous. Something related to a certain 80’s rock song: (“You’re not gonna make it…No! You’re not gonna make it…) And of course they cheered even louder when a free throw did happen to clang off the rim. At half time, they threw T-shirts in the stands; there were nearly as many T-shirts as there were fans so we ended up with a few of them. For the second game, the stands started to fill up for the game between Illinois-Chicago and Green Bay. This exciting game was close the whole way. Green Bay won on a last second three-pointer; and naturally we went crazy; because whether you’re at a fourth-grade CYO game or an NBA playoff game, a game-winning shot is, of course, awesome. (And if we had come back the following night for the semifinals, we would have seen two more game-winners). Who says only the big-school rivalries can be exciting? In that gym, you could tell the teams were playing for something, that the fans cared, that it wasn’t “just another game.” It didn’t matter that it was the quarterfinals of a far-from-major conference tournament with teams we had never seen before. All that mattered was that this was basketball; it was March basketball. Our game was one that only a fraction of basketball fans would see, but was connected to this larger mass-cultural phenomena that we call March Madness. We were watching a part, and not an insignificant one, of this incredible month of basketball, which every year captures the magic for college basketball fans everywhere.

I found myself continuously reminding myself that the teams in that small gym were competing a spot on the same big stage as Duke and Kentucky, as Coach Rick and Coach Roy. Every team is playing for something, which isn’t always the case in other sports. Realistically, teams from the Sun Belt or the Colonial might not be gunning for the Final Four every year, but a conference championship means a lot for any team. And when you watch a celebration after each championship game, you may as well have thought those players had just won the Olympics.

Conference games in college basketball are some of the most competitive match-ups in all of sports. Teams and coaches are familiar; fans invest in the rivalries; rankings and NCAA seeds can shift in the blink of an eye. We don’t need to wait for Selection Sunday for March Madness to start; championship week sets the stage. Teams that lose focus can be upset in a hurry; games on consecutive days mean someone can get hot and make a run to the finals. Already this year, teams have carried momentum to championships and berths into the NCAA tournament. As the major conference games start in full swing, there will be more than a few magic moments between now and Sunday.

So don’t think of this as a preview to March Madness, this is already the beginning. Championship week has given us some of the greatest moments in college basketball: Evan Turner’s long buzzer-beater for Ohio State; Vanderbilt upsetting top-ranked Kentucky in the 2012 SEC final; Kemba Walker’s magical run with UConn; 6 overtimes for Syracuse and Connecticut (and that’s just the past decade). This is the most exciting month in sports, and it has already begun. It’s only going to get better. These unforgettable moments will unite players and fans from all over the country. We’re waiting to see which players will add to their legacies; which team will become the next Cinderella story; which video clips will be replayed for posterity. It does not matter which team is your favorite, just watch and be amazed. It’s Championship Week: let the magic begin.  AN

All-Star Entertainment

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on February 17, 2015.

All-Star Game selections are designed to recognize the best players of the league. You can malign the fan-voting system if you want, or the way the All-Star rosters are frequently changed due to injuries; but for the sake of this article, let us assume that the goal of the All-Star game is to highlight the skills and accomplishments of the best players in each conference. If we could identify the superstars of the league and put them all in the same game, then we would expect to see the best display of the sport. Unfortunately, that is hardly the end product. In fact, the annual matchup between these two teams of superstars is underwhelming at best. With the exception of the MLB All-Star Game, which still holds some semblance of respectable competition, most of these such events have turned into casual affairs, devoid of any real strategy or defense; in particular this is the case with the NBA All-Star Game and the NFL Pro Bowl. I’m still on board with the honor of an All-Star selection, but fans looking to see a competitive game are often disappointed.

Thus I had minimal interest in watching the NBA All-Star Game this year, but happened to catch the 3-point contest on Saturday night. This season has featured some of the best individual shooting performances in the NBA, and the league’s biggest names were all participating in this year’s contest. I watched stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Kyle Korver, plus finalist Kyrie Irving and defending champ Marco Belinelli. Their shots seemed almost effortless, arching through the air as they had numerous times before in practice. Curry put on quite a show, making 13 consecutive shots at one point during his victorious final round, staking his claim as the top shooter in the NBA. And anyone who wasn’t impressed should try to just shoot 25 shots in a minute from the NBA distance, let alone try to sink 13 in a row. Already impressed, I just had to watch the Slam Dunk Contest, which I admittedly had not watched since Blake Griffin’s over-hyped, shouldn’t-have-won, jumping-over-the-hood-of-the-car-he-happens-to-endorse dunk. This year’s contest featured some of the game’s young stars who brought a combination of skill and athleticism that brought the New York crowd to its feet. Victor Oladipo and Zach Levine dazzled the audience with the off-the-backboard, between-the-legs, around-the-back dunks that looked like video game manifestations.

For every young kid that has picked up a basketball in the driveway, the All-Star festivities are a reminder of the playground games that put bragging rights on the line and creativity to the forefront. I remember trying to the hit the shot from the back of the driveway in the final round of H-O-R-S-E. My friends and I would lower the rim and pretend we were dunking on the big stage. Weekends were all about who could make the off-the-roof, left-handed, one-footed, bank shot that no one would be able to recreate. That was the fun of the sport, making our own rules and trying to do something that hadn’t been done before. With the eventual transition to organized teams and official competition, these antics fade away from times of youth. But for one night, the NBA puts away the rulebook and brings out the bright lights. Never mind that the dunk contest scoring makes no mathematical sense, we just want to see someone defy the law of gravity. And the players get into the excitement too, cheering for every next highlight-reel worthy moment, just like they were back on the playground. I was genuinely entertained and impressed with the skills and pageantry of each contest.

Maybe the NFL can take a lesson from this too. Who wouldn’t want to see Tom Brady and Peyton Manning line up at the 50-yard line and try to hit different targets in the end zone? Let’s see who can nail a 70 yard field goal, or make the best one-handed catch. The MLB already has the home run derby, but why stop there? Let’s see who can throw a strike to third on the run from the warning track. For one night, let’s put the entertainment value back into sports. It doesn’t always have to be about teams and championships, sometimes it can just be fun. So yes, I’ll overlook the mediocrity of the game itself, and instead watch to see who can dribble through obstacles the fastest or who can hit the shot from half court. I want to see 10 3-pointers in a row, or maybe the triple-backflip, off-the-trampoline, through-the-ring-of-fire, windmill dunk. Why? Because that’s entertaining, and sports should be fun. The rest of the season can be about competing for every point and trying to make the playoffs. For one day, it doesn’t have to be about the actual game; just make it entertaining. Most of the players probably began playing on a playground, just trying to do something exciting and new. Once a year, they have a night to go back. Watch them put on a show.  AN

Running under a Shadow

This article was concurrently published at NoCoastBias.com on February 3, 2015.

The Boston Marathon was in the news again this week. Twice, in fact. After a snowstorm hit the Northeast, inspiring pictures circulated on the internet showing the finish line that had been cleared of snow. That feel-good story was subdued slightly within the running community amid the decision that Rita Jeptoo, the Boston Marathon champion in 2006, 2013, and 2014, had been suspended for 2 years following the positive test of her “A” and “B” samples for erythropoietin (EPO). EPO stimulates the production of erythrocytes, which are precursor cells for red blood cells, vital for transporting oxygen through the body during exercise. For its proven enhancement on aerobic capacity, EPO is a banned substance for all endurance athletes.

Jeptoo, who also holds the course record at Boston, is one of the biggest names in women’s distance running. Having also won the Chicago Marathon in 2013 and 2014, she was the top competitor at the World Marathon Majors, a circuit that includes six of the most competitive marathons around the globe each year. Jeptoo will no longer be eligible for that prize, and is banned from competition for two years, including the world championships this year and the 2016 Olympics. There will still be an appeal, which will occur before determining whether Jeptoo will have to forfeit any previously won prize money. However, her reign as a top-teir distance champion may be informally over, as the professional running community has increasingly moved toward an attitude that seeks to punish doping offenders and keep them out of future competition.

Most people would agree that doping is present to some extent in all endurance sports. The degree to which you believe it exists, depends on your level of cynicism. Unfortunately, until the penalties catch up to the infractions, there may remain be an incentive to cheat. Running is a demanding support; marathon training, even more so. At the professional level, the stakes are high to win races and set records. Champions receive nice payouts in prize money, but many elite and sub-elite runners live with mid-level sponsorship deals while training full-time and sometimes holding other jobs. A win at a major race can be a career-defining moment, not just in terms of earning potential, but also as a springboard for other competitions.

But distance running doesn’t have a “quick fix.” The “fluke” wins that might show up once in a while in other sports don’t occur in running. You can’t train to win a race overnight (or even within a few months). Winning a marathon “on luck” doesn’t happen. Sometimes an entire year is planned out in order to peak for a single race. Base mileage for elite runners tops 100 miles per week; specific workouts are tailored for each phase of the training cycle; and the “intangibles” of strength, nutrition, and recovery become even more important. Oh and by the way, everyone else is working just as hard to beat you. A nagging injury, improper recovery, or a few missed workouts can derail a training plan, which at the elite level, might jeopardize the race goal. I’ll never justify using performance enhancing drugs, but I do understand the motivation. Even when I’m sidelined with an injury in my running career (which doesn’t need to support my livelihood, I might add), sometimes the frustrating aches and pains leave me wishing for a magic healing pill or some secret formula to increased fitness as I chase the more talented runners ahead of me on the roads. Running is about setting goals and improving, and sometimes the line between what is fair and what is cheating gets obscured. A professional runner may know that doping is against the rules, but if “not doping” means a perpetual inability to reach the top-tier, than their decision-making suddenly gets cloudy. That is, until the review process and penalties are arranged in order to discourage doping or cheating of any kind. If the penalties becomes more strict, hopefully that will deter the use of performance-enhancing substances at the elite level. Now is the time for professional running to take a hard stance against doping, and maintain the integrity of the sport. Many professional runners have advocated lifetime bans for runners convicted of doping. Others are advocating in the US and abroad for regular and reliable testing procedures, which will hopefully set an example for younger athletes to compete fairly as well. Certain race directors are more likely to withhold entry into races from runners who have been banned in the past, and it is likely that future efforts will continue in this direction.

Running should be clean. It is the purest sport that pits one person’s physical limits against another’s. Implicit in this competitive contract is the understanding the accomplishments listed next to your name are yours alone, those earned without any unfair advantage. It is the sport that connects to the masses, not just those select few trying to make an Olympic team, but the millions more who sign up for local 5Ks, those who train to complete their first marathon, and the runners that trot along city trails and bike paths every weekend, simply for the love of the sport. When I read stories about doping in running, many emotions arise, but the first one is sadness: when a sport that unites runners around the world is cast into a shadow, and for the terrible example I fear this portrays for young athletes. Running is about the grit and effort that goes into each tough workout, the knowledge that you gave your all, and the satisfaction that you get out exactly what you put into it. But it’s also about revealing one’s character and winning with integrity. Doping, whether to increase red blood cells, build muscle mass, or recover from an injury more quickly, is merely just a shortcut.

And when it comes to running, shortcuts don’t get you there any faster.  AN

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