With news coming of the NFL’s decision based on the Wells Report, the focus is on the punishment the league handed to Tom Brady and the New England Patriots.
Was it reasonable, or excessive?
Was the NFL justified in treating the Patriots organization as a repeat offender?
These questions and more will be argued and debated for some time.
But, put aside for a moment, the question of guilt or innocence. And, forget that one of the NFL’s best all-time players has been suspended.
A Fundamental Issue Is at Stake
Instead, let’s look at the issue itself, because it’s disappointing to see how it has been viewed.
The Wells Report found that an employee of the Patriots intentionally took some air out of game-certified footballs just prior to the AFC Championship game against the Indianapolis Colts. This supposedly was done to provide Tom Brady with a football that he finds easier to throw. Emails cited in the report indicated that this may have happened in earlier games.
Many people have expressed the opinion that, whether it happened or not, taking air out of the football is a minor infraction and not worth much attention. In an appearance on WEEI Radio last week, ESPN NFL reporter Adam Schefter compared deflating a football to a car driver rolling through a stop sign.
Others have argued that it doesn’t provide a quarterback or team a significant advantage. Tom Brady’s stats in the AFC Championship game repeatedly have been cited to support the argument that even if the footballs used in the first half of the game had been altered, Brady was even more effective in the second half when the footballs were properly inflated.
And, there is the argument that deflating a football pales in comparison to other influences on competition, such as using performance-enhancing drugs.
A Change of Focus Needed
But, these arguments miss a larger point.
The extent to which a player or team gains a competitive advantage isn’t the issue. It’s the attempt itself.
Competitive integrity isn’t measured in degrees. If a student cheats on an exam, we don’t call it “gamesmanship”, and we don’t try to determine how much the cheating helped the student score better on the test. Our attention is on the act of cheating.
If a competitor breaks a rule in an effort to gain a competitive advantage, it is wrong. There isn’t any gray area here. It’s wrong. That competitor is compromising the integrity of the game and the sport.
So, argue guilt or innocence. Debate the punishment. But, don’t lose sight of the value of integrity in the process.
This is about playing honorably and responsibly. It’s about maintaining an even playing field. Players and teams have to compete under the same rules and conditions. It must be clear that the winner has been determined on merit, and that no one has gained an advantage outside the rules of the sport.
When integrity is compromised, even in small ways, the sport is diminished.