So did the New England Patriots actually cheat last Sunday when they beat the Indianapolis Colts in a 45-7 laugher? Well, the game was certainly important. Winning meant another trip to the Super Bowl for the Patriots. And, then, the Patriots have a history. Back in 2007 the team was busted by the NFL for illegally eavesdropping on opponents and stealing their signals. The NFL took it seriously enough to fine the team $250,000 and rule that it would forfeit its first round draft choice. The NFL also levied a half-million dollar fine on Patriots head coach, Bill Belichick, as the sinister mastermind of what Commissioner Roger Goodell labeled, “a calculated and deliberate attempt to avoid longstanding rules designed to encourage fair play and promote honest competition on the playing field.”
Belichick and his defenders indignantly claimed it was no big deal and that the signal stealing gave them no real edge. And went about as though they were, somehow, being singled out for who they were. That they were being picked on because everyone was jealous of their success.
The episode became known as “Spygate,” proving that we shall never be rid of that “gate” suffix, no matter how trivial the crime or non-euphonious the construction.
There is, however, one way in which the Patriots sneaky business resembles the Watergate affair. Both were masterminded by humorless men who could not admit to a mistake and would do whatever it takes to win. Even when it didn’t take anything more than, essentially, showing up at the office. Does anyone think that Richard Nixon would not have won in a landslide in 1972 if his footpads hadn’t broken into the Watergate? And does any football fan believe that Tom Brady and Bill Belichick need to be inside the other team’s huddle in order to win a football game?
But, cheaters cheat. And Belichick did cheat, even if he didn’t think it was a big deal. So now, when the Patriots are being accused of deflating the footballs its team used when on offense last Sunday, people think, “Well, probably they did. It’s what they do.” Deflating the football so that the pressure is slightly less per square inch than is called for in the rules supposedly makes it easier for quarterbacks to grip and receivers to catch. Nobody has claimed it gives a running back any advantage or that Patriots’ LeGarrette Blount wouldn’t have left cleat marks on the back of Indy’s defenders even if he’d been carrying a bowling ball or a cinder block.
The Patriots are stonewalling and the NFL is investigating. (Early reports from ESPN indicate that NFL sleuths have found that 11 of the 12 Patriot game balls had, indeed, been deflated below the pressure required by the rules.)
One wonders how this thing, and “Spygate” before it, would have played out if Belichick had simply shrugged and gone the way of, say, Richard Petty. The “King” of NASCAR won more races than any other driver in a sport where everyone cheated and had a sense humor about it. One of Petty’s wins came when he drove a car whose engine was later determined to displace some 30 cubic inches more than the rules allowed. Petty had a phrase for this kind of thing. If you are going to cheat, he would say, then “cheat neat.”
The way legendary NASCAR engineer Smokey Yunick did before one race. To get around the limit on gas that NASCAR allowed a tank to hold, he put an inflated basketball in the tank before it was tested. After the car was cleared to race, Yunick deflated the ball giving his driver the advantage of just that much extra gas.
Cheat neat. And laugh about it later. The way they do in baseball where an illegal pitch, the spitball, is a part of the culture. It is a hard pitch to throw. Also hard to catch someone throwing it. And it has added years to the careers of some of the game’s greats who later confessed, as the Dodger “Preacher Roe” did in a famous Sports Illustrated article where he talked about what he called his “Beech-Nut slider.”
Whitey Ford was a Hall of Fame pitcher with the Yankees known for being tough in the clutch and, occasionally, on the wrong side of the law. After he’d retired, he told a Sports Illustrated writer, "I didn't cheat until later in my career when I needed something extra to survive. I didn't cheat when I won the 25 games in 1961. I don't want anybody to get any ideas about taking away my Cy Young Award. And I didn't cheat in 1963 when I won 24 games. Well, maybe a little."
Nobody has suggested booting Ford out of the Hall