Friday, January 23, 2015

Of balls and disruption

Yesterday, I watched Tom Brady's news conference live, and afterward saw clips of Bill Belichick's previous presser. Up until that point, I saw Deflategate as something that could be a major scandal or could be nothing — and if it was something, it was up in the air as to who was responsible for it.

For two years, I was the equipment manager for my high school team, which gave me an appreciation for how many different footballs get used in a game, and how they have to be handled. For all the stringent protocol that the NFL follows with its own footballs, it's an undeniable fact that no one can constantly account for dozens of footballs during a game, and that lowering the air pressure of one is a quick act that can be done very discreetly (I never did such a thing, but I know it's possible). If anything, it's worth checking to see if every other team isn't also doing this from time to time.

That said, however, the New England Patriots have already been caught cheating in recent years, so it's not hard to imagine that still-intact regime doing it again. I have no way of knowing if or who, of course, but my suspicion was that it started at the top. Before the presser, that is. Now, I'm not sure if Belichick knew and I'm not sure Brady didn't. Belichick (the consummate leader) sounded genuinely befuddled and Brady (Captain Confidence) was uncharacteristically flustered and halting.

In any case, it does seem strange — if the allegations are true — that a team as good as the Patriots (who throttled the Colts 45-7 in the AFC Championship) would feel the need to breed an unfair advantage. I hope it's not true. I'm no Patriots fan, but I want to believe their tremendous dynasty is solely a testament to their skill. We'll see.

I went into the Slate article linked above feeling some sympathy for Belichick, and hoping I might gain a perspective on the coach that I might have missed in my anti-fanhood. And sure enough, the writer, Luke O'Neil, raises the interesting phenomenon of a team evolving from scrappy underdogs to hated champions. But then he lost me with this:

As a rational human being, the sullying of my favorite team’s name admittedly stings, and the right thing to do here might be to apologize for Belichick. But instead, to the rest of the football fans out there I say this: You’re welcome. Without a villain like Belichick, the NFL would be a much less interesting place. 

I've long said that I like personality in the NFL, even when I don't like the personality, because it makes the game interesting. But he is asking us to bow to a team — his team — for disrupting the status quo.

I'm all for that in theory, but I don't think that's defined by flouting the rules of the game. To indulge my own fanhood, Sean Payton's onside kick to start the second half of Super Bowl XLIV is the kind of disruption I think enriches the game. It compels the other team, and the game in general, to rethink how they play. All the best teams in NFL history innovate this way.

If, on the other hand, a team is stealing signals and deflating footballs, that's not innovation — that's cheating. Anyone who values that kind of disruption and the heroes-villains dynamic over fair play should watch professional wrestling instead.

Anyone can disrupt the game with dubious methods. A real villain is crafty enough to do it within the confines of the game.

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