Deflate-gate: Why Cheating in Sports Doesn’t Matter (Unless it Does)

by Gabriel Valdez

Let’s be clear about one thing, football fans: We watch a cheater’s game.

Yes, it looks like the New England Patriots under-inflated footballs in the Conference Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. This serves a competitive advantage so that QB Tom Brady can grip the ball more easily.

Their opponents in the Super Bowl will be the Seattle Seahawks. In their Conference Championship win, they let QB Russell Wilson skip the league-required concussion protocol after a vicious hit to the head. This is the same Seahawks team that’s had six players suspended for performance enhancing drug (PED) use since the appointment of Pete Carroll as head coach.

The Seahawks beat the Green Bay Packers in that game to get to the Super Bowl. Packers QB Aaron Rodgers is on record telling analyst Phil Simms two years ago (ironically, right before he played the Patriots) that he tries to get away with sneaking over-inflated footballs past the refs, providing a competitive advantage for his touch passing style of throwing.

When the Patriots beat the Colts last weekend, they played a team with the league’s most promising young QB at its helm: Andrew Luck. Many believe that Colts coaches purposefully tanked the 2011 season, a strategy that is acknowledged and accepted in the NBA but is illegal in the NFL. Why would the Colts do that? So they could get the #1 overall pick in 2012: Andrew Luck.

Not every team cheats on the field, however. In order to get to the Conference Championship game, the Patriots had to beat the Ravens in a tight match-up. This NFL season started with Ravens RB Ray Rice knocking his wife unconscious. Evidence came out that the Ravens and NFL conspired to hide the details of the incident. There are even texts on record in which the Ravens owner, Steve Bisciotti, tells Rice that he’ll take care of it and there will always be a place for Rice on the team. Rice, of course, was punished, although it took the league a few times to get that punishment right. For their attempts to cover up the incident, the NFL suffered a PR fiasco that ultimately has little impact on the league, excused itself of any wrongdoing through an internal investigation, and the Ravens suffered no punishment whatsoever.

The Seahawks had to beat the Panthers in the Wild Card round. Years ago, the Panthers underwent a massive PED investigation that called into question their own appearance in Super Bowl 38.

The Packers also beat the Cowboys two weeks ago. Just a week earlier, the Cowboys were accused of influencing the referees and the league to make calls in their favor, a notion ridiculous on its face but exacerbated when video of the league’s VP of officiating from earlier in the season resurfaced. What did it show? The man leaving a Cowboys party bus full of women who appeared to be strippers. That’s nothing against those women, but they aren’t the ones in charge of the league’s officiating. Come to think of it, maybe they should be.

Also in this year’s playoffs, the Colts beat the Broncos, who in 2010 were fined by the league for an incident known as Spygate II. Spygate I, of course, involved the Patriots videotaping another teams’ signals. The illegality doesn’t lie in the practice, as many believe, but simply in what section of the seats you decide to set your camera to do the videotaping. The Broncos were fined.

Other playoff teams this year include the Bengals, Cardinals, Lions, and Steelers.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis is outspoken about treating the league’s concussion protocol as a nuisance, and is suspected of letting several players pass through it without proper diagnosis.

The Cardinals are actually fairly scandal-free, which is perhaps one reason they were also playoff-free until this year. They did have a player arrested on domestic violence charges earlier this year, but unlike the 49ers, Panthers, Ravens, and Vikings, they promptly released their player. Oh, wait no, I’m sorry. The Cardinals have held onto starting LB Daryl Washington, despite his being suspended a season for assaulting his girlfriend. You see, the player they cut immediately, Jonathan Dwyer, was a reserve backup and doesn’t give them any real competitive advantage. Washington does.

The Lions, meanwhile, are known as the dirtiest team in the league. DT Ndamukong Suh stomps on players while they’re down and kicks them in the groin. After Suh intentionally stepped on the torn calf muscle of Packers QB Aaron Rodgers, he was suspended a game. As NFL Network analyst Brian Billick correctly guessed, this was so the league could look tough while negotiating the suspension down to a simple fine, so that Suh could play in the Lions first home playoff game in two decades.

Even ignoring Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger’s two rape accusations (which, one should note for fairness, were never pressed past accusations), the Steelers have their legacy cemented in NFL history because of their four 1970s Super Bowl wins. Never mind the massive amount of steroids players on those teams admitted they took.

You want to call Super Bowls into question? The New Orleans Saints won their heroic comeback to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina on the back of an on-field bounty scandal, wherein players were paid extra whenever they injured an opposing player enough to remove him from the game.

The Baltimore Ravens won two Super Bowls with star LB Ray Lewis, who was involved in a murder investigation in 2001. He later pleaded down, and the league never mentioned it again.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers QB Brad Johnson admitted that he paid for under-inflated footballs in the team’s lone Super Bowl win, over the Oakland Raiders.

The Dallas Cowboys, “America’s Team” in the 1990s, covered over arrests through settlements that amounted to legal bribes with parties who were assaulted and abused by its players, thereby keeping some of its biggest stars on the field at a time they should have been in jail.

New York Giants Super Bowl star LB Lawrence Taylor admitted to paying for drugs and prostitutes to be sent to the opposing team’s hotel the night before big games.

As for under-inflating footballs, though it might pale by comparison to some of the examples above, it’s still cheating. But let’s be clear: that’s what this league is. I fully believe that 90% of players are just doing a job and trying to do the best, most honest work they can. But those 10% left over make a difference, especially when you factor in owners for whom no rules really apply. Teams around the league make concessions to keep those 10% on the field and to give their teams any advantage they can. Nearly every playoff team and Super Bowl victory deserves some sort of asterisk next to it.

I say all this, but I’m a football fan. Hell, I know all this because I’m a football fan. I’m nuts about football. I can’t wait for the Super Bowl. I think it’s one of the best matchups in recent history.

Frankly, I’ll take a team under-inflating footballs and a team with some PED problems any day of the week over teams hiding away domestic abusers and paying bounties for career-threatening injuries.

I’d like to see the Seahawks treat the concussion protocol more seriously (this is true for all teams, including the Patriots), but I also applaud their attitude toward team-oriented support systems and pro-active rehabilitation for players who have had off-field issues.

(The argument about whether players should be allowed to take PEDs when we ask them to otherwise wreck their bodies by the time they’re 35 is a far more complicated conversation – there are arguments on both sides worth listening to, and a regulated industry might be safer in the long run than the illicit and more dangerous one that doesn’t care about side effects and will happen anyway.)

It’s interesting that the harshest penalties the league hands down to teams are due to videotaping another team’s signals, under-inflating footballs, and tampering with the negotiations of another team’s player (as the Jets are accused of this year).

It’s interesting because the lightest penalties the league hands to teams are in relation to off-field violence and domestic abuse. That seems incredibly backwards to me.

I wish we could see the same indignation leveled at both the league and teams over harboring domestic abusers that we see over a smushy football.

Covering over assaults and domestic abuse should have no part in this game, and if the league can’t continue improving its response to this, I will stop watching. Period.

Cheating the concussion protocol needs to stop being overlooked by the league, and start costing draft picks. That has to do with long-term physical and mental health.

But the rest of it? Spying? Under- and over-inflating footballs? Finding any competitive advantage without hurting anyone until you get caught? Couldn’t care less. That’s professional sports. If you’re going to be a fan, stop pretending you’re watching something pure. You’re watching millionaire players and billionaire owners using their considerable resources to find any competitive advantage they can. I’d say that’s what the game is today, but in many ways, it’s what the game always has been. It’s what every professional league became decades ago. Welcome to the ridiculous hypocrisy of being a sports fan.

But if you’re going to get angry over something, get angry over something that matters, that does hurt someone, that does change lives. There’s more than enough of that in the league for you to get angry about.

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