Cheat to Win: Should We Dismiss the Success of Athletes and Teams Who Break the Rules?

On the heels of Super Bowl XLIX, which saw the New England Patriots defeat the Seattle Seahawks to capture their fourth championship in fourteen years, many have accused the Patriots organization of perpetuating a “culture of cheating” that has allegedly helped fuel their success.

In the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, even the most casual football fans were inundated by mainstream, alternative, and social media alike with accusations and stories of the Patriots playing the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts with underinflated footballs, a scandal that quickly snowballed into “DeflateGate.”

The NFL has launched an investigation into the matter and time will tell (or it might not) if the Patriots are culpable in attempting to create an unfair advantage against the Colts. Underinflated footballs are easier for quarterbacks to grip and throw and are also easier to catch, especially in cold weather. The league mandates that all game balls be inflated to within a narrow pressure range.

Never mind the fact that the Patriots beat the Colts by more than six touchdowns; never mind that New England looked like far and away the best team in the conference throughout the latter portion of the season, continuing a decade-plus run of dominance almost unparalleled in modern professional sports, every football fan outside the greater Boston area seemed to assume the Patriots made it to the Super Bowl by cheating.

New England has been accused of breaking the rules before. In 2007, the team was accused and later found guilty of video recording an opponent’s defensive coaches signaling in plays, a practice the NFL explicitly forbids. This morphed into “Spygate” and resulted in the team losing its first round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft and being levied a quarter million dollar fine. (Head coach Bill Belichick was fined a half million dollars). This scandal coincided with the Patriots appearance in Super Bowl XLII on the heels of a record-setting undefeated regular season (they would lose to the New York Giants). Even though New England lost, many, including head coaches current and former, now declare their success tainted due to Spygate.

In fact, some NFL insiders believe that the Patriots indeed do operate using a “culture” of cheating. Players have accused them of being serial rule breakers; some even as far back as the 2001 season, which marked the first of their six Super Bowl appearances under Belichick. Coaches from rival teams have stated that many of the Patriot’s indiscretions haven’t been made public but yet are common knowledge among league personnel. Former Patriots employees who have left the organization have corroborated some of these claims, including Eric Mangini, the former Patriots defensive coordinator and ex-Jets and Browns head coach who initially accused Belichick and co. of taping his team’s defensive signals.

Add it all up and it seems difficult to defend New England’s innocence. Logic would tell most sports fans that this team’s run of success is tainted, that its victories should be recorded with an asterisk. Let’s stop right here for a minute. The New England Patriots since Belichick took over are one of the most successful organizations in all of professional sports; few individuals or teams (Jordan’s Bulls, Torre’s Yankees, mid-2000’s Jimmie Johnson) can match the Patriots’ run of success. As time goes on, Belichick’s Patriots will be remembered as a dynasty, a team operating at a level above its competition. Many would argue that they have greatly benefited from bending, tip-toeing over, and even blatantly disregarding the rules.

Maybe all of this is true. Maybe the Patriots have been a rogue organization engaging in illegal tactics to win football games. Maybe they do seek to gain any unfair competitive advantage they can over their opponents. If this happens to be the case, should we as football fans dismiss the team’s accomplishments over the past fifteen years on the basis of competitive disadvantage?

No way.

Regardless of if Tom Brady, the Patriot’s quarterback during this stretch of time in question, and the Patriots coaches knew some of their opponent’s defensive signals, and thus some of the defensive coverages, he still had to adjust the protection from his offensive line, audible to a play likely to work against the expected coverage, manage the play clock, take the snap, and complete the pass. In other words, the “cheating” was only a piece of the puzzle. Brady and the other ten players on offense still had to do their jobs. And they had to do consistently them at a high level, play after play, game after game, year after year to attain this kind of sustained success.

Take a second-string quarterback and give him the same information gleaned from the Spygate video tapes and put him on the field. Will he lead his team to playoff berths? Unlikely. Brady is a rare talent and is firmly entrenched in the discussion of one of the best professional football players ever. All of these instances of cheating, alleged and proven, distract from this fact.

The same holds true for underinflated footballs. Sure, they might be easier to catch, but the quarterback still has to read the defense, identify the open receiver amidst a sea of linemen and pass rushers and he has to make that throw on time and in a location where the receiver can make the catch. Put an offense from a 5-11 team on the field against the Colts in that AFC title game, deflate their footballs to whatever illegal specification they wish, and they will probably still struggle to win the game.

The point is that blanket statements about how cheating nullifies success detract greatly from everything else an athlete or team does to win the game. Regardless of the competitive advantage that’s obtained, if there even is one, there are still a multitude of things to be done in concert for that athlete or team to be successful.

Take, for another example, the success of NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson, the winner of five consecutive Sprint Cup championships and a sixth in 2013. Johnson’s cars have failed inspections performed by NASCAR officials at least five times due to unapproved modifications. His crew chief, Chad Knaus, who has been at his helm for the entirety of Johnson’s historic run, has been penalized at least nine times for violating rules on car specifications. Some fans have speculated that NASCAR deliberately turns a blind eye to Johnson’s and Knaus’ bending of the rules. Others wonder if only divine intervention can explain Johnson’s dominance.

Just as with the case with the Patriots, there is much more to Johnson’s string of success than what are mostly minor technical infractions. He still had to drive the damn racecars. And drive them well, race after race, year after year, with Chad Knaus directing the pit stops, coordinating the fuel and tire strategies and car adjustments, and seeing that each week Johnson’s cars had high-performing engines and were tuned to provide maximize performance for a given racetrack.

Many fans have understandably grown frustrated with Johnson’s dominance as it has happened concurrently with a multitude of cheating allegations over the years. But these fans would be remiss to write off the career of one of the sport’s greatest drivers due to some seemingly minor rules infractions. It takes a tremendous amount of driving talent and technical expertise, not to mention some teamwork amongst a large and diverse racing team, to consistently win racing championships. The violations Johnson and Knaus have been accused of probably aided their success only a miniscule amount. It’s not like Johnson would have been at the back of the pack had it not been for an illegal fender or unapproved seatbelt.

There are endless examples that could aid our discussion but the following quote from former Phillies and Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling is illustrative. With regards to the seemingly rampant cheating in baseball, particularly the alleged egregious use of anabolic steroids, Schilling remarked, “There isn’t a team in the last twenty years that has won clean.”

Perhaps he’s talking about his own Boston Red Sox, whom he said nudged him towards using performance-enhancing substances to recover from a pitching injury in 2008. A few years later, new allegations of Red Sox pitchers skirting the rules would surface. These allegations can be added to the growing mountain of other cheating accusations that have been made against baseball players over the years.

If we dig deeper across all sports we can find alleged examples numbering in the hundreds of teams and players infringing on competition rules. Recruiting violations in college football. Trained lip-readers spying on NFL coaches. Salary cap violations. Paying off referees. Performance enhancing substances. Racecars sitting too low. Blood doping. Cash payments for players who injure opponents on the field.

The list can go on. The point is that if we dismissed the accomplishments of every athlete or team on the basis of an alleged instance of cheating, we probably wouldn’t have many sports accomplishments to celebrate. The feats of incredible athletes would be erased from the record books. Cinderella stories could become irrelevant. Dominant teams would be forgotten. Entire dynasties might as well have never taken the field.

If we want to see an even competition between two equally matched opponents with no possible hint of an unfair advantage for one side, we can tune into the next televised spelling bee or chess match. But if we want to watch and celebrate true competitive drive, we’re going to have to tolerate a little rule bending from time to time. That’s the nature of sports. Filled with paranoid, hyper-competitive individuals who often obsess to the point of sickness over every loss, it’s understandable that we will see some occasional underhandedness in the pursuit of victory.

Don’t like it? Don’t watch the games. Don’t read the stories or play the fantasy sports. Don’t purchase the merchandise. And don’t incessantly ostracize the accused rule breakers and deny their accomplishments. It takes much, much more than a little deception to win championships at the professional level in any sport. By dismissing the success of every alleged cheater, you’re only showing your ignorance and spite as a fan.

So the next time a story breaks about, say, a Tour de France winner caught doping, just remember that although he may have cheated, the riders behind him were probably cheating as well. And despite all of this, he still had suffer to through two thousand miles over three weeks, fending off waves of competitors and his own pain and fatigue. He still had to ride the damn bike.

-D.H.

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2 thoughts on “Cheat to Win: Should We Dismiss the Success of Athletes and Teams Who Break the Rules?

  1. The worst is when the NCAA tries to rewrite history and vacate wins and championships after it innocently realizes (!) that, for example, Reggie Bush and his family had a handful of boosters on speed dial. To me, that’s not even cheating. It had nothing to do with the game as it was played on the field. And whatever benefits Bush got, he deserved them.

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  2. Absolutely. A hundred or so players and a dozen coaches worked their asses off and battled to win those games and the NCAA just makes their entire season disappear. In terms of the record book, all the film study and game-planning, the practices, the lifting and conditioning, and the individual and collective efforts in the games themselves, were for nothing. Over one player who some help from rich alumni AFTER he had signed his LOI and enrolled at the school. Makes no sense. And USC is just now recovering from the sanctions.

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