Should we care whether the New England Patriots broke the rules of the National Football League by slightly deflating the balls used in last week’s playoff game against the Indianapolis Colts? Yes.
Nonfans 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.
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 noted, 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.
There are those who by constitution and character will continue to press, seeking every possible edge. 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 its opponents’ hand signals, but the memories of fans are long.
So are the memories of nonfans. 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.
Stephen L. Carter is a professor at Yale Law School.