The New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft has decided not to appeal the penalties imposed on his team for the so-called “Deflate-gate” scandal. That leaves Tom Brady alone to pursue his appeal later this month of the four-game suspension imposed on him.
But first, put yourself in right field with one out in the top of the ninth inning, a runner on second, and your team leading by one run. The batter hits a line drive your way, and you race toward it, diving, and landing over the ball — a fraction of a second late. You’ve trapped it. The runner on second, with an unobstructed view, sees the trap and runs to third. What do you do?
Sprawling on the grass, you hold your glove aloft with a wondrous “hey, look, I caught it!” expression. Then you get to your feet and throw to second, doubling up the runner and ending the game.
You’ve cheated. You know it. The runner knows it. Possibly most of the cheering fans know it. But as long as the umpire doesn’t know it, you are a hero. The opposing manager is on the field screaming, but his anger is directed toward the umpire, not toward you. If roles were reversed, he would have expected his outfielder to do exactly the same.
The detour illustrates a point. In sports, there is cheating – and then there is cheating. Much of what we call cheating is not only accepted, it is admired.
No one has ever censured an outfielder for pretending to have caught a trapped ball.
For that matter, no one has ever condemned a catcher for moving his glove into the strike zone, in an attempt to persuade the umpire that a ball was a strike. Sometimes the catcher even holds it there for a few seconds, as if spending more time over the plate will somehow transform the nature of the pitch. The pantomime never works, and the effort has become fodder for The Onion. (“In a statement issued after Wednesday night’s Rockies-Giants contest, home plate umpire Laz Diaz warned all catchers around the league that he is ‘onto their little game,’ and is easily able to tell when they slyly move their glove into the strike zone after catching a pitch off the plate. ‘You catchers seem to think that I was born yesterday,’ the statement read in part.”)
Baseball is not unique. All sports have their areas of acceptable cheating.
Lebron James is a basketball legend. That hasn’t stopped him from “flopping” – faking fouls to get extra trips to the free throw line. Not too long ago, his dramatic artwork even gave rise to a craze: young people, called “Lebroners,” gently bumped into passersby at airports and other public spaces, and then dropped to the ground with sensational flair, while their friends videotaped the scene.
Of course, when it comes to acting, Lebron James does not even qualify as a rank amateur compared to international soccer stars.
Football has its own “cheat-if-you-can get away with it” sectors. Holding is illegal, but it’s penalized only if caught. Offensive linemen routinely grab inside the defenders’ pads because it’s outside the referee’s view, and therefore uncalled.
The Seattle Seahawks, the team Brady’s Patriots defeated in the 2015 Super Bowl, won the 2014 Super Bowl by traversing a long path of cheating. Dispensing with the blitz, the 2014 Seahawks kept an army of defenders back and simply mugged the offensive receivers on every play. The Seahawks would “test” the refs early, to see what they could get away with. Then they relied on non-stop pass interference to shut down their opponents’ offense.
The Seahawks led the League in pass interference penalties, but they realized advantages from their transgressions. No matter how often they interfered, they knew that the vast majority of their infractions would go unchallenged. Mike Pereira, a former NFL vice president of officiating, now a Fox analyst, summarized the Seahawks philosophy this way: “We may get called for one but not 10.” The team seemed to know that statistics were on their side. Since 2001, only nine NFL teams have been penalized more than 20 times in a season for pass interference, and every single one of them had a winning record.
Assuming (and many Patriots fans fervently believe otherwise) Brady directed or acquiesced in the deflation, it’s not enough to say “he cheated!” and leave it at that. As we’ve seen, there’s cheating – and then there’s cheating.
Cheating done in the open, where referees and opponents have a fair chance of detecting it, is generally not condemned in professional sports. It is part of the game. The outfielder trapping the line drive is not equal to the player injecting himself with performance-enhancing drugs. Both are cheating, but one’s cheating is public and the other’s is private. The difference is akin to that between a confidence man running a shell game on the sidewalk, and a burglar breaking into a home at night. Both are thieves, but of different classes.
Some might say yes. The deflation of the footballs reportedly occurred secretly, in a stadium restroom. But once deflated, the balls were brought out into the open. The referees handled them before and after every single play when the Patriots were on offense. The Colts touched them every time they knocked down a pass. The footballs were not hidden in someone’s bloodstream, detectable only by lab tests. They were used openly: visible and touchable, like a baseball scuffed by a pitcher.
Tom Brady’s appeal of his four-game suspension will take place on June 23. The appeal will focus on what Brady knew and did. It will address the issue: Did Brady cheat?
That’s an interesting question. But, assuming cheating is found, it would be even more interesting to ask: Where does Brady’s cheating fit in a world where certain forms of cheating are both expected and accepted?