Friday, May 8, 2015

It's Not About Cheating

The Wells Report, 243 exhaustive pages of investigation into infinitesimal air pressure changes, dropped today. The aim was to uncover whether the Patriots intentionally deflated footballs and whether Tom Brady and Bill Belichick were complicit in doing so. The report amounts to a novel-sized shaggy dog story, concluding in a supremely unsatisfying "probably," but really, the findings are immaterial. Any verdict that did not canonize Tom Brady and Bill Belichick as Roman Catholic saints would have generated the same result: waves of histrionic moralizing from sports columnists defending The Integrity Of The Game, breaking on the usual bulwark of hair-splitting rebuttals and persecution complexes from Patriots' fans.

Better writers have already skewered the lunacy of devoting millions of dollars to what could reasonably be considered the smallest of the league's problems. And the general arguments - "Everybody does it;" "a history of cheating" - are being marshaled with a weary sort of resignation. This is the song-and-dance routine dragged out every time accusations of rule-breaking are levied against the Patriots. New England fans lament being targeted disproportionately for infractions that are practiced league-wide, and even the most strident critics can admit this is probably true. But the underlying cause for these witch hunts is not "jealousy," nor a nation-wide effort to discredit New England's accomplishments. There is no conspiracy to explain why the Patriots perennially find themselves under the microscope. It's much simpler than that.

It's because the Patriots are assholes.

Bill Belichick is not a man given to sentiment. His almost-perfect 2007 season featured Brady and Randy Moss routinely running up the score, attempting fourth-down conversions and throwing the ball late in the fourth quarter against hapless opponents. He is openly contemptuous of the media, with none of Marshawn Lynch's on-field highlights to compensate for his disdain. Even his players, who vouch for his off-camera personality, understand that they are only commodities of depreciating value in his eyes. In a league where every coach is scrapping furiously for the smallest advantages, Belichick's reputation for being calculating and obsessed with winning is not easily come by. His ruthlessness and graceless does not endear him to former players, journalists, or the teams he embarrasses on the field.

Similarly, the NFL's rulebook is a Gordian knot of subarticles and clauses, and its ambiguity is blood in the water to Belichick. He lives for grey areas, and no other coach is half so adept at exploiting the shortcomings and intricacies of the rules. He orchestrated a masterful strategy of jamming the Greatest Show on Turf and Peyton Manning's Colts at the line of scrimmage.  He included a healthy Tom Brady on the league-mandated weekly injury report for three years straight, though the quarterback played 127 straight games in that span. (In one of karma's more capricious fits of malice, Brady suffered a season-ending knee injury in the very next game after his removal from the list). In the most recent playoffs, he took advantage of Baltimore's inexperienced cornerbacks by running complicated schemes where receivers lined up as offensive linemen, and vice-versa. None of these practices were illegal, but all three resulted in rule changes to rub out the practice in the future. In a league where other coaches race to adapt to the rulebook, it often seems like the rulebook is racing to adapt to Belichick. In this, he is thumbing his nose at the shield, exposing its foibles and flaws in full view of a televised audience. He may be right to do so, but it stands to reason that this gamesmanship would draw the ire of a commissioner desperate to preserve the appearance of competence.

Though he is the avatar for the Patriots' condescending attitude toward the rest of the league, Belichick is by no means the only culprit. Owner Robert Kraft, a man beloved exclusively by his circle of lackeys and the average Joes who schlep out weekly to Foxboro, saw fit to weigh in on domestic violence following Ray Rice's suspension. His stern condemnation was somewhat undermined by both his employment of a murderer, and his cheerful fraternization with well-documented abusers. Tom Brady, beneficiary of one controversial rule and namesake to another, has become the poster-child for the type of tacit advantages accorded to high-profile quarterbacks. Even Gronk, innocuous and playful, carries a miasma of frat-boy privilege.

But for all this, the Patriots still might weather these controversies without so much fanfare. Where they truly blunder is in their defense of their actions. Simply by denying the claims made against them, the Patriots invite extra scrutiny. Yes, it is true that all teams cheat. The Patriots are exceptional in their futile attempts to protect their reputation. Kraft & co. cling to "The Patriot Way," a risible, extinct code of conduct that somehow distinguishes the Patriots from the common brutes shuffling through the rest of the league. In order to prop up this mythical standard, it is not enough that transgressions are endured - they must be exculpated. This too brings attention to the Patriot's door - a preacher's misdeeds are far more interesting than a drunk's.  If they chose merely to accept or ignore the accusations, they would fade into obscurity. As evidence, one needs look no further than the Superbowl, in which the Patriots "probably" committed a second, much more palpable infraction that received much less attention.

Julian Edelman, hero of the game, likely endured a concussion following a brutal hit from Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor. Though it came to light that he was eventually cleared (by a sideline concussion test regarded as a farce), he did not leave the field to be examined until after the offense had scored a touchdown (a series in which he was instrumental). Surely Edelman, who should have been removed immediately for testing, provided a larger advantage for the Patriots than a slightly flabby football. Yet Edelman and Belichick defused any larger controversy by remaining staunchly mum on the subject. As is usual, a rule was changed, but the media remained silent.

By trampling over teams, discarding players at the first whiff of decline, snubbing the media, scoffing in the face of the league, and foolishly proclaiming their innocence, the Patriots have left themselves without allies. And as long as they continue to run roughshod over their detractors, their detractors will continue to take savage, vindictive pleasure in finding fault with the Patriots' accomplishments. Yes, every team cheats. But not every team is a dick about it.

P.S. Sorry about not using images but I don't want to do it without properly attributing them and I don't know how to do that.

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