So Ted Wells’ report is out, and now there is a renewed media frenzy surrounding the New England Patriots, Tom Brady and “Deflategate.”
Among the findings of this extensive, gravely serious investigation into the air pressure inside the oblong leather pouch we call a football is that Tom Brady, New England’s superstar quarterback, was “generally aware” of the scheme to underinflate balls, and it was “more probable than not” that Brady was in on it in some fashion.
Oh my, what shall we do? Call the Pentagon! Call out the National Guard!
Predictably, the media outrage machinery has kicked in. Debates are raging over whether Brady really knew what was happening. Did deflated balls have a decisive affect on the AFC championship game in question? What should the league punishment be? Passions are running high and the tabloids have had a field day with clever and often provocative “Deflategate” wordplay.
But for many of us casual NFL fans across the country, none of the revelations from this most recent controversy is even remotely surprising. Part of sport is gamesmanship, and at the highest levels, there are enormous pressures — and incentives — to do anything to get an edge over the competition. With fame and fortune on the line, people will cheat. The NFL is no exception.
This has manifested itself time and again in recent years with performance-enhancing drugs (still underreported in some professional sports) and with more clever rule-bending and regulation-skirting. The larger the rulebook, the more rules that can be exploited by one side.
The Patriots already achieved such infamy back in 2007 when they were caught videotaping an opposing team’s defensive signals, from their own sideline, in clear violation of NFL policy. Patriots Coach Bill Belichick may be a straight-A student of the game, but sometimes even those at the top of the class will cave to pressure and cheat.
So there is really nothing shocking in the Wells report, as it merely confirms what we already know: Sometimes even the best will break the rules in sports, and the New England Patriots appear suspiciously fond of an “anything goes” strategy to win.
Tom Brady, despite all his success, still wants to win more than anything. Letting a little air out of some balls hardly seems too far afield for him.
No doubt, the NFL should police its own, and sanctions for rule breaking are essential to maintaining the integrity of football games. It’s not fun to watch if we don’t think it’s fair. Let’s not forget, though, that some proportionality would be useful here.
“Deflategate” isn’t some terrible tragedy. It is a failing of sport, not of law. Nobody got fired, nobody was hurt. The NFL will do what it does, the league will move on, billions of dollars will be made. In the grand scheme of things, “Deflategate” is a blip on the radar of American sports culture.
With that in mind, it feels like the Wells report has the tone of an investigation more befitting the takedown of a drug cartel than some sketchy off-field shenanigans. Over 60 witnesses were brought in for questions, trails of text messages were examined — all to figure out if the footballs used in one NFL game were a couple PSI below the mandated inflation range.
Good heavens, how will America ever survive?
That the public’s fascination with sports is driving this news story much more than the gravity of the subject matter is obvious. But perhaps there is a lesson in that as well.
We generally elevate professional sports and sports players too much, and that creates false expectations among the fans. Of course some of these athletes will bend or break the rules to win, and the league should dispense justice as it sees fit.
But we shouldn’t be surprised and we shouldn’t pretend it’s a national crisis if a player lies about whether he asked an equipment manager to deflate some balls.
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