LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - My reaction to
Deflategate The Sequel
is pretty much the same as the first go-round last winter: The whole stupid thing is vastly overblown. Whether Tom Brady and his equipment-manager buddies did or did not let air out of footballs before the New England Patriots demolished Indianapolis for a berth in the Super Bowl, it smacked more of a frat-boy prank than a serious case of rules-breaking. It is a misdemeanor in a world awash in felonies.
But I shouldn't have been surprised when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell caved in to the lynch mob and dealt a Draconian punishment to Brady and the Patriots: A four-game suspension without pay for Brady, a $1 million fine, the loss of a first-round draft pick and so forth. Goodell always seems to get it wrong when it comes to penalties; they're either too strong or not strong enough. He did not distinguish himself in this case.
For as long as sport has existed, athletes have looked for an edge – that little something that would enable them to prevail over the opposition. More often than not, it's a mental game. Think Ty Cobb sitting on the bench before a game, shooting menacing glowers toward the opposite bench as he sharpened his spikes with a file. Iconic athletes such as Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, and Tiger Woods knew how to get into an opponent's head.
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But there's also blatant cheating and brazen lying about it. How long did we believe Lance Armstrong's contention that he did not use drugs in his Tour de France victories? Nobody at North Carolina admits to knowing about those bogus classes. Baseball outfielders and football wide receivers routinely lie about balls they trap instead of catch. And so on, ad infinitum.
For more than 25 years, Pete Rose has been banned from baseball under a rule against gambling that was adopted in an era where everything was black or white. But, Mr. Goodell, the mentality of former baseball commissioner Kennesaw "Mountain" Landis, is long gone. Today, for better or worse, we live in an era of moral ambiguity where some fans, perhaps the majority, believe that everybody cheats to some extent, and that cheating is not an absolute. They see degrees of cheating, and everybody gets to draw their own line about what's acceptable and what's not. That's the way it is. Deal with it.
And yet ...
Here was Brady, sitting on a stage with the intrepid interrogator Jim Gray, the same guy best remembered for badgering Rose about his gambling before an All-Star Game. But this time Gray seemed subdued, even a bit cowed, by the raving, cheering crowd there to witness Brady's first appearance since Deflategate The Sequel – or, if you prefer, the release of the NFL's investigation – had hit the news a day earlier.
Brady literally basked in the adulation. Smiling his most perfect white-tooted smile out of his perfectly tanned Hollywood leading-man face, he nodded and waved, selling his All-American, Boy-Next-Door charm for everything it's worth.
He is the guy many love to hate because he has it all – cover-boy looks, Hall of Fame talent, more money than he can ever spend, four Super Bowl championship rings, a super-model wife, perfect kids, celebrity status, adoring fans, the whole enchilada.
Earlier this year, when he threw a scare into everybody by jumping off a cliff while on vacation, he probably did it for the same reason he was involved at some level with The Great Deflation: Hubris. He thinks he's bullet-proof. Or Teflon, at least. Nothing bad sticks to him, nothing can hurt him.
Just after Brady was introduced, Gray approached Deflategate The Sequel like a cat burglar. Before Brady could answer the first question, a voice from the crowd boomed out, "Who cares?" That drew a roar of approval from the crowd and a chuckle from the smug Brady, who seemed as relaxed as if he were sitting by the pool with a Pina Colada.
But that's the crux of the matter, isn't it? Who cares? Have we become so jaded by all the cheating in our society today that the level playing field really doesn't matter anymore? Absent undeniable proof, such as a videotape in a casino elevator, a star athlete can get way with just about anything because the public – and the media that caters to it – needs the stars to keep their fantasies, not to mention their fantasy leagues, alive. The athletes have the power to silence their critics because hero worship is blind.
I am reminded of the time I accompanied Bob Knight to a speech in southern Indiana. He went on a rant against the media and the crowd loved every word of it. He looked over at me, winked, and then said, "There's one of them right there." And the crowd howled at me like I was an axe murderer.
Later Knight laughed and said, "You know if I'd told them to lynch you, they probably would have done it, don't you?" He was just having fun with me – I think – but he also was right. Like demagogic politicians and banana-republic dictators, sports heroes know they have the masses in the palms of their hands.
A couple of weeks ago, former UK basketball icon Derek Anderson appeared on the Drew Deener Show on ESPN680. Without prompting, he began to give his opinions about the state of Wildcat basketball. Suffice it to say he was not kind to John Calipari, whose poor coaching he blamed for UK's losses in the last two Final Fours.
Unsurprisingly, the reaction from Calipari's fan base was so overwhelming that Anderson felt compelled to make a public apology to Calipari and one of the players he criticized for leaving early for the NBA. But reading the apology, it didn't seem the size of the reaction bothered Anderson as much as the harshness of it. He angrily singled out those who "attacked my character." He was shaken that fans could turn on him so quickly and so viciously.
It was a harsh lesson in how social media has changed our world for the worst. Public discourse has taken a big hit. Civility has been replaced by crudeness, thoughtfulness by stupidity, critical thinking by a blind allegiance where the end (winning) always justifies the means (fill in the cheating term of your choice). Even an iconic athletic hero is not immune. If you don't drink a guy like Calipari's Kool-Aid and exercise your right of free speech, you're opening yourself to a backlash of the most repugnant kind.
To me, a far more important story than Deflategate The Sequel is the fraud – and that's the precise word for it – that was foisted on the American public in the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, to use the term loosely, in Las Vegas.
Simply put, those who paid exorbitant sums for tickets, wagers, and pay-for-view TV were bilked like a bunch of rubes at the county fair. As we learned after the fight, Pacquiao was damaged goods. He severely injured a shoulder three weeks before the fight. Yet instead of doing the right thing and reporting it, which probably would have caused a postponement, the Pacquiao camp kept it secret.
The result was a boring, 12-round waltz between a guy with one arm and a defensive fighter who refused to go after him. When it was over, Mayweather was granted a unanimous decision and a record payday of $150 million or so. But his victory was beyond tainted. It was a joke, except nobody was laughing. The idea of a rematch was breathtaking in its audacity.
I'm a no-tolerance guy when it comes to cheating. The reason is simple. Anybody who breaks the rules tilts the level playing field and destroys the integrity of sport. Period. Yet I also believe that Brady's punishment didn't fit his alleged crime. A shop-lifting ticket, relatively speaking, shouldn't get the death sentence.
But I also believe there should be consequences for his unbecoming conduct. Goodell should have given him a stern public admonishment and a warning that he will be closely watched. He also should have forced him to agree to make X number of public speeches on the importance of sportsmanship and playing by the rules. Of course, that would hardly satisfy the critics howling for the Golden Boy's head.
In any walk of life – sports, politics, business, education, you name it – cheating in any form should never be taken lightly. The fans who see, hear or speak no evil about their favorite player or team must be challenged by rational observers who clearly see fraud, deception, deceit, and demagoguery for what they are. Nobody who truly loves sports should ever care more about winning than playing by the rules.
If Brady did not deserve to be hammered – and he did not – he also did not deserve to be cheered for a foolish and completely unnecessary prank. The smug frat boy's grin needed to be wiped off his face and replaced by one of humility, assuming Brady is capable of that. At least he knows now, if he didn't before, that he is not bigger than the game, above the rules, or entitled to conduct himself differently than any other player.
Sadly, at bottom, Brady comes off as a hollow man despite his athletic prowess. Just another dumb jock, albeit a vastly talented one. The circumstantial evidence that he messed with the rules is bad enough; the cavalier way he handled it even worse. Who cares? Now Patriots fans surely do. It's just a shame it took this kind of punishment to wake them up.
Billy Reed is a longtime sportswriter who contributes occasional columns to WAVE3.com.