Patriots and the Rule of Law

January 22nd, 2015

Sports analysts and the news media devoted much of today to the latest New England Patriots scandal dubbed “Deflate-Gate.”

We may never know if the Patriots intentionally deflated eleven footballs during the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, but it’s all very suspicious.

All the coverage today has been quite interesting because some of the attitudes shared by both the media and the parties involved speak to larger much more important issues for our society than whether or not someone in the Patriots organization nefariously let the air out of eleven footballs.  Namely, how much stock do we all put in following rules and by extension laws?

When we first heard of Deflate-Gate, it seemed pretty straightforward.  Specific NFL rules dictate the exact inflation of a regulation football and how balls should be handled prior to a game.  Intentional noncompliance is punished by a minimum fine of $25,000.  That seems pretty straightforward.  There is a rule.  The Patriots used eleven underinflated balls.  The NFL is investigating and presumably if they find noncompliance there will be a punishment.

But it’s not so straightforward anymore.  Listening to all the commentary today, it’s clear that in some circles even if the Patriots broke the rules it really shouldn’t be regarded as such a big deal. Move on.  Everyone start planning Super Bowl parties.

For example, some argue that the Patriots clearly would have defeated the Indianapolis Colts anyway so what’s the big deal?  No harm, no foul.  Even one of the Colts players took this position.  Cornerback Dwayne Allen tweeted out, “They could have played with soap for balls and beat us.”

Okay, I agree. The New England Patriots are the better team and on that basis they should represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.

But does that mean that in certain circumstances fudging the rules really isn’t such a big deal?

Former NFL quarterback Matt Leinart even went further with this idea tweeting, “Every team tampers with the footballs.  Ask any QB In the league, this is ridiculous!”

This all begs the question. Why bother having the rule in the first place?  Which rules in the rulebook must be followed and which ones can a team slide on?

After all, this is just football.  As Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady pointed out in his press conference today, it’s not life and death. He did add, however, that it’s important to investigate the matter in order to protect the “integrity of the game” so he didn’t seem to be entirely in the “no big deal” camp.  Then again, he’s the one in the hot seat over all of this.  It would be interesting to know his opinion if this wasn’t the case.

While it is indeed just for a game, a football rulebook is a lot like other more important rulebooks we’re all expected to follow. For example, there are dozens of traffic laws out there designed to keep the public safe.  Clearly, not everyone follows them to the letter.  Some people ignore them more regularly and openly than others.  A few of these rules are no brainers when it comes to public safety.  For instance, barreling through a red light is roundly frowned upon by virtually everyone.  Coming to a rolling “citizen” stop in a neighborhood when you’re the only car on the road, however, is likely regarded quite differently.  No harm, no foul, but you broke the law.  Comparing this to an NFL rule, is this more or less serious than intentionally deflating a football in an NFL game for a trip to the Super Bowl?

Extrapolate this out even further to other rules and laws like the Constitution.

Should these all be followed to the letter or is there room for “discretion”?

Ultimately, where does it all end?  Should we care if a team breaks a rule or not?  What about a citizen and a law?  Or how about a president and the Constitution?

How much do rules and laws really matter these day?

That’s the question we really need to be answering as the NFL decides what really happened to all those Patriots footballs last Sunday.

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