Let’s admit one thing: The New England Patriots would have won their AFC championship game against the Indianapolis Colts this past Sunday regardless of football conditions.
Unfortunately, the NFL’s investigation into under-inflated footballs used by the Patriots found that 11 of 12 balls were 2 PSI under regulation air pressure. The 12 footballs used by the Colts met NFL regulations. Coincidence?
In addition to admitting the Patriots would have won the game regardless, and despite the evidence, I also want to acknowledge that there is currently not enough information to squarely accuse the New England Patriots, or any individual player or staff member, of deflating the footballs. Head coach Bill Belichick and quarterback Tom Brady have both publicly denied any knowledge or involvement with the issue. While any of the aforementioned could be guilty, it is just as possible that a bribed staff member or official deflated the balls. Or that along the chain of the balls’ manufacturing to their arrival at Gillette Stadium, an equipment manager, somewhere, tampered with them. Or that, completely by coincidence, almost every ball used by the Patriots was mistakenly underinflated before even leaving the factory. Any coincidence seems extremely unlikely. But whatever the source, we need to acknowledge that, despite close association, we can’t find the team guilty without trial.
But to still claim, as some analysts do, that “Deflategate,” as it’s now termed, “doesn’t matter” because it didn’t change the outcome of the game? This is a sad analysis. It doesn’t matter who deflated the footballs. The Patriots’ win, whether the footballs were altered by their own hand or someone else’s, will be remembered as a tainted victory. If they win the Superbowl next Sunday, the win will inevitably come under question (justifiably or not).
This is the big loss for the New England Patriots organization and for football fans at large. The win lacked meaning. Certainly it is not that the Patriots adopted a “win at all costs” mentality; if indeed they were behind the deflated footballs, the tactic was just competitive lubricant to ensure the victory that they so clearly and dominantly would have earned anyway. The win is deserved. They were the better team. Despite that, their win makes the rest of the NFL feel cheated. They decisively won a game that was punctuated with dirty laundry. There is, of course, little glory in this.
New England has also called into question the rest of the NFL season. Is it likely that this is the first time Patriots footballs have been altered outside of NFL regulations? What other tactics might NFL teams have employed to gain a less-than-ethical advantage? In fact, Deflategate has shown us that football manipulation has not existed only in this isolated incident (apparently, it’s happened before). As the investigation and coverage escalates, it is not just the integrity of one football game or one team at stake. Rather, the ethical integrity of the entire league is in question – helped in no kind way by NFL issues earlier this season – and it threatens the competitive meaning behind football in the U.S.
Rewind a few weeks, and we find another blaring example of a win lacking meaning. San Bernardino Arroyo Valley High School women’s basketball team in California beat Bloomington High School by a score of 161-2.
The 159 point deficit is not a typo. One team, so far and away superior on the court, engineered a game so lopsided that it left no hint of doubt as to the winner’s dominance. Why, then, was the San Bernardino coach suspended for two games after the win? Maybe a decision to continue pressing their opponent was a misguided one. Had his team eased up, would the post-game stories have been reported with such scrutiny? Would we feel the same unease towards a team and coach who, perhaps, humiliated their opponent when a different choice could have been made?
There’s a big lesson here. We like to win. Winning, in sports or otherwise, is a worthy goal. We naturally seek and celebrate success. But we do not like wins that lack meaning. Even more importantly, a meaningless win equates to a lost opportunity to make an impact.
Imagine if San Bernardino hadn’t run up their score unnecessarily but had, instead, used their clear superiority as a moment in mentoring for the less experienced opponents. Imagine if the questionable 92% of the Patriots footballs had met regulations, thereby focusing our attention on the athleticism and accomplishments of the players rather than the bad taste left in our mouths from a win assembled partly with unfair circumstances, however unnecessary they may have been. Imagine if, like high school runner Melanie Bailey, athletes more regularly made the choice to lift others up, physically or emotionally. Imagine if, like Hiram College women’s basketball, who agreed to give up home court advantage so that ailing opponent Lauren Hill could play her first college game in front of thousands of friends, family, and supporters, the participants in these less-than-meaningful wins had found some way to go beyond themselves through sports?
Indeed, winning is important. We rightly value success. But a win that sacrifices meaning in favor of metrics brings everyone down. It overshadows the accomplishments of all the New England Patriots who (presumably) were as blindsided by the Deflategate allegations as the rest of the sports world. It robs respect for the losing participant by putting a tick in the win column ahead of true sportsmanship through fair and balanced competition. It cheats us, the spectators and supporters, of a competitive joy based on feats accomplished on the field. Because no matter the outcome of next Sunday’s big game, most of us will be watching – perhaps even subconsciously – with just a little extra attention to those game balls. And that’s just one more distraction from this sport that we don’t need.