I sympathize with those brushing aside the “Deflategate” scandal swirling around the New England Patriots as much ado over little of consequence. After all, the Patriots absolutely annihilated the Indianapolis Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship Game on January 18. It’s hard to conceive any edge Patriots quarterback Tom Brady allegedly gained from playing with deliberately underinflated footballs could be primarily responsible for that butt whipping.
Still, I’ve long wondered what our easy acceptance of cheating in sports says about our society. Considering the “Spygate” incident of 2007, when New England coach Bill Belichick was fined $500,000 and his team $250,000 for illegal taping New York Jets coaches during a game, there’s plenty of smoke here to suggest a fire. But, most casual NFL fans chuckle about this latest allegation; many I talk with even declare admiration for Belichick and Brady for their “whatever it takes to win” attitude. “That’s why he’s the best coach in the game,” said one friend recently.
Of course professional sports cheating is nothing new. Even those who don’t follow Major League Baseball recall Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa shattering his bat on a ground out in 2003, revealing illegal cork inside. Or, they saw Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro in 1987 trying to fling an emery board from his back pocket before suspicious umpires could confiscate it. Both incidents were greeted with wink-wink, nudge-nudge laughter.
Things got more serious soon after the Sosa incident, as a litany of players were investigated, eventually confessed, and were suspended for steroid use. There was just cause for reasonable doubt long before that in the unnaturally bulked bodies of players. Yet, for years before and even after the unravelling, some fans just accepted steroids as part of the game.
One of my favorite sports, professional cycling, is the poster child for how an entire sport can be nearly ruined by systemic cheating in the form of drug and blood doping. Situations spiral downward quickly when stars, their teams, and fans convince themselves “everyone’s doing it” and the only way to keep up is to do it too. None fell further or harder than the iconic Lance Armstrong, but the past decade has seen a non-stop parade of champions revealed as cheaters being stripped of titles. It’s a situation so pervasive Armstrong’s seven titles from 1999-2005 now sit vacant, and two reigning champions Oscar Pereiro (2006) and Andy Schleck (2010) were elevated to champion’s status months after their races when original winners were confirmed to have failed drug tests.
Yet, as with baseball and other sports, plenty of cycling fans I know feel doping should be legalized and competitors should be free to take whatever health risks they want in pursuit of victory.
Maybe it’s because the athletic endeavors of my youth featured far more losing than winning, but I can’t help but feel we’ve cheapened what it means to win. In those rare seasons when a football team I played on managed to put it all together, winning was something magical. It was a special journey, and we all knew it. The lessons my teammates and I learned about hard work, dedication, persistence, and teamwork served us the rest of our lives, and we still talk about it when we see each other.
Perhaps we can blame it on the routine firing of coaches in the pro and college ranks (and increasingly high school too) who win 75-80% of their games, but not that elusive championship. But, when winning on the scoreboard and in the standings is all that matters, I’m not sure those lessons I’ve counted on in my life are being learned by the competitors. I’m certain the Patriots of New England have all those same ingredients we counted on with the Peachtree Patriots team I played on in high school, but why not let that be enough? Why cheapen it by cheating to extend an edge when you’ve already done the hard things it takes to be a winner?
Deflating footballs or secretly taping your opponent feels an awful lot like the things we’ll do to win these days in other areas of life. Whether it’s cheating or just bending the rules is a matter of whose side you’re own. Candidates for office and their parties blatantly seek to suppress voting with legislation and redistricting. Or, they rack up votes by convincing people to hand over a blank absentee ballot or to blindly check a box in the voting booth in exchange for a ride or something more. We rant about it when the other side is guilty, but tend to look the other way for our team.
On the surface, it works. But, do we really understand winning anymore? Real victory isn’t something you find on a scoreboard or in election returns, it’s what you feel inside when you know you gave it everything you had, did all the right things, for all the right reasons, in only the right ways. It’s an experience you’ll remember all your life, along with how you got there.
You can’t get anywhere that matters by pretending it doesn’t matter how you got there.
Maybe singular incidents like “Deflategate” aren’t the big deal they’re made out to be. But, collectively, they say more about us than we want to admit. And, that’s a big deal.